Opinion: Burma debate keeps going on unitary state vs. federal union
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Opinion: Burma debate keeps going on unitary state vs. federal union

The people of Burma have been longing for a peaceful and prosperous country since the 1948 independence victory. But regrettably, the nation’s independence hero General Aung San was assassinated a year ahead of liberation. As a result, civil wars throughout the nation came forward with the independence offered by British colonial rule.

In fact, General Aung San and the leaders of Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups had guaranteed a genuine federal union of Burma by signing the Panglong Agreement on Feb. 12, 1947. The said agreement accepted the representatives of ethnic states to administer their own affairs in areas of economy, judiciary, education, and customs and so on.

However, Burma’s 66-year-old historic Panglong Agreement has been ignored by the consecutive Burmese regimes. The said agreement has been disregarded by the military leaders as they did not support ‘Federalism ‘since 1962. The military extremists blame the federalism as an idea of secessionists.

The late dictator, Ne Win, who seized power in a military coup in 1962, strongly opposed sharing equal power with other respective ethnic nationals. Ne Win supported a unitary state rather than a genuine federal union. The Military Council headed by Ne Win declared that the military coup had taken place because of the “federation topic,” which he said could lead to the disintegration of the nation.

Equality of ethnic minorities with the Burmese majority was to him unacceptable. When Ne Win seized power, he did away with the 1948 Constitution.  At the same time, the Panglong Agreement, which promised autonomy or self-determination of the ethnic groups, was broken and abrogated.

The head of the previous junta, Sen-Gen Than Shwe had followed the example of his predecessor Ne Win and Saw Maung, who both fortified the single unitary state. In addition, Gen. Saw Maung’s successor, Gen. Than Shwe was no different either. Under Than Shwe’s command, the controversial 2008 Constitution was drawn up but criticized as an undemocratic charter in public.

Afterward, the current President Thein Sein government took office by swearing to defend the 2008 Constitution. It indicates the current regime also is no different to its predecessors.  It will not allow autonomy or self-determination of the ethnic groups as it has to loyal to the latest constitution.

“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 have to obey the Burma Army’s command.

The current regime standpoint is that the ethnic groups must dump their stubborn attitude of grasping the principle of Panglong Agreement. They also want the ethnic groups to be faithful to the Burma Army backed unitary state rather than the federal union system. This means they must lay down their arms together with their hope for autonomy.

The government has been dishonest and avoided declaring a national scale ceasefire to establish a true peaceful nation. If it was sincere, it would stop all self-styled area-cleaning offensives in ethnic territories in favor of grand dialogue to show it has a serious will to reconcile.

However, the Burma Army has been insincere so far. For instance, the Burma Army has launched new operation against the Shan State Army (SSA)  to remove its bases located in northern Shan State last February 18, S.H.A.N. news said. For that reason, the SSA has blamed the Burma Army as “untrustworthy”.

“The Burmese military is double-crossing the peace process,” said Shan State Progress Party / Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) spokesman Maj. Sai La. “Calm has just returned to the Kachin State. It is starting all over again with us. This doesn’t augur well for peace.”

The SSPP/SSA signed a ceasefire agreement on 28 January 2012. Since then, it has reportedly fought more than 50 clashes against Burma Army columns “trespassing” in areas under its control, according to Shan News (S.H.A.N.).

Hence, the peace agreement seems to be on paper only. Some analysts believe that the military-backed President Thein Sein government has also been following the path of its predecessors. The real plan of seeking temporary ceasefire by the regime looks as if to persuade more recognition of international community, rather than genuine peace.

Hence, even though some ceasefire deals are made between the rebel groups and the government there has been little valid progress. Many ethnic leaders asserted that they don’t have trust the new 2008 constitution. They believe that it will not create a legitimate federal union in the future.

Additionally, the Burmese armed forces take 25 percent of all seats in the existing parliament. As said by most ethnic leaders, the current constitution will not grant the democratic freedom and the autonomy for the ethnic people.

So, without pondering the constitutional amendment, it may be too early to say that Burma is going on a proper reform path.