’12th February of 2013′ is the 66th anniversary of the Union Day of Burma. It marks the signing ceremony of the ‘Historic Panglong Agreement’ between General Aung San and leaders of the Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups guaranteeing a genuine federal union of Burma. However, Burma’s successive leaders ignored the historic political-contract that paved the country en route for independence.
In fact, Panglong Treaty was a part of ‘Aung San-Attlee Agreement’ which was signed by the British and General Aung San and his colleagues for Burma’s Independence talks on 13-27 January 1947, in England. As a result, Burma was promised independence which did not include the Frontier Areas, as the non-Burman States were known earlier under the British rule.
General Aung San returned to Burma to plead with the ethnic leaders to unite for Independence. On 8 February 1947 – he delivered a speech at Panglong promising adequate protection for non-Burmans’ rights if they decided to join Burma. Aung San said, “Non-Burmans could struggle on their own, but no one can predict how long it will last. But if you join hands with the Burmese, independence at the same time is assured,” according to a SHAN report in 2000.
Later on 12 February 1947, the Panglong agreement was signed between leaders of the Frontier Areas and Aung San to unite and jointly fight for independence, and to establish an independent union, in accordance with the principle of the ‘Right of Self-determination’.
If General Aung San did not promise equal opportunity and self-determination, the country might never have been founded under the title of the Union of Burma. The Panglong agreement was aimed at setting up a federal union on the foundation of equality and autonomy for every ethnic nationality.
However, up to date President Thein Sein government’s period, the contract has been put aside since the cabinet has been dominated by ex-generals. Besides, Burma’s 2008-Constitution contributes many problems for political parties and ethnic cease-fire groups seeking some common inspiration between ethnic groups and the existing governments.
To address the interconnected ethnic problems, the current government must review the mistakes of past rulings and the political aspirations of the ethnic communities. The root cause of the nation’s political disorder is the consecutive governments’ antagonism to a democratic federal union. The late dictator Ne Win, who made military coup in 1962, opposed sharing equal power in a series of heated debates in the then legislative body.
Ne Win supported a unitary state over a genuine federal union which he said could lead to the disintegration of the nation. Equality of ethnic minorities with the Burmese majority was to him out of the question. When Ne Win seized power, he demolished the 1948-Constitution. At the same time, the Pang-Long Agreement, which promised equal opportunity and autonomy of the ethnic groups, was broken and abrogated.
If one looks back to 1960-61, many leaders from ethnic states criticized the weakness of the constitution as well as the government’s failure to let the representatives of ethnic states to manage their own affairs in areas of the economy, judiciary, education, and customs and so on. The central government ruled the ethnic areas as vassal states.
Sen-Gen Than Shwe has followed the tradition of his predecessor Ne Win and Saw Maung, who both defended the single unitary state. “All the armed forces in the union shall be under the command of the Defense Services,” says section 337 of the 2008 constitution. It means ethnic armed troops are under state control.
Under the junta-designed 2008-Constitution, the Burmese Military takes 25 percent of all seats and also seize additional 77 percent seats using military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the 2010 polls which were recognized as vote-rigging show.
In such a military dominated parliament, real ethnic representatives who are willing to push ethnic issues forward, have no opportunity to occupy enough seats in the military monopolized-parliament to form an effective coalition.
Without addressing and honoring the ethnic people’s demand for self-determination, the latest parliament-based government seems unable to stop political and civil strife throughout ethnic areas. In reality, ethnic people’s demand of equal rights is not a new one but already mentioned in the 1947-Panglong agreement.
For example, the latest crisis in Kachin State clearly describes the immoral practices of the incumbent President Thein Sein Government. The Government even does not keep honesty to address the minorities’ issues in a fair-minded approach. In point of fact, the government armed forces have violated the 1994 ceasefire agreement and invaded into Kachin territory. Then, the government deployed more infantry units in Kachin land and turn down to pull out even though constant calls from KIO and local residents.
As a result, KIO has constantly refused to accept the government’s three-step plan which says the issues have to be solved corresponding to the 2008 constitution. KIO likes better its own three-step procedure — the first step would be an agreement on the distribution of troops and their locations; the second step would be a comprehensive discussion similar to the Panglong Conference, which would involve all ethnic leaders and the government in order to work out long-standing political disagreements; the third and final stage would be to put into effect the agreement in whatsoever constitution is proper.
However, President and his government did not take into consideration of the KIO’s three-step proposal rather. In reality, all other ethnic groups are closely watching the situation of Kachin’s struggle for autonomy based on Panglong Agreement which they also believe.
However, Burma’s sixty-six year-old Historic Panglong Agreement has been disregarded by the military leaders as they did not support the ‘Federalism‘since 1962. Burma cannot gain National reconciliation without honoring ethnic self-determination. These issues must be addressed in the current People’s Parliament immediately.
If the current government failed to deal with the Panglong initiative or equal rights of ethnic minorities, its self-styled political reform will be a meaningless optimism.