April 14, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Panglong Conference: A Blue-print for Future Burma’s Nation Building

26 October 2010, Chinland Guardian: On October 24, 2010, a historically and politically significant statement calling for the second Panglong Conference was jointly issued during the 22nd anniversary of the Zomi National Congress by veteran politicians and leaders of the mainstream democratic opposition parties operating inside Burma: the National League For Democracy (NLD), Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), Karen National Congress (KNC), Mon National League for Democracy (MNLD), and United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD).

By calling for and undertaking this historic gathering of people of all political and ethnic backgrounds, these brave and visionary leaders of Burma’s democratic oppositions have once again underscored a very critical point absolutely essential to the formation of a common and stable Union of Burma – acknowledging the fact that the restoration of a mere democracy replacing the military government is not a solution, they commit once again to the establishment of a federal form of government, a political system considered to be the most suitable system for a multi-ethnic Burma. As the word ‘Panglong Conference’ has a political significance behind the founding of the Union of Burma, I would like to reflect on the first Panglong Conference and its subsequent political implications.

The Union of Burma was born out of a treaty – known as the Panglong treaty – that was signed on February 12, 1947 by pre-colonial independent leaders of the Shan, the Kachin, the Chin, and the Burman or Bama.[1] Before the British conquered Burma in 1886, those ethnic national minorities lived in their own territory according to their own political system of governance. During the British rule, the territory inhabited by ethnic Burman majority was then called the ministerial Burma or Burma Proper.

With the objective of achieving Burma’s independence along with pre-colonial independent ethnic national minorities, General Aung San, who was the then leader of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), convened a meeting at Panglong, the Shan state, which was attended by leaders of the Chin, Kachin, Shan, and General Aung San himself in February, 1947. In that politically high-profile gathering, the conference delegates reached a landmark agreement, which is known today as the Panglong Accord or agreement signed by delegates on February 12, 1947.[2]

The agreement was basically these: (a) leaders of the ethnic Chin, the Shan, and the Kachin, agreed to gain independence together with Burman majority as one country; (b) ethnic national minorities – Chin, Shan, Kachin for instance – would continuously retain their birth right to self-rule; and (c) after ten years of living in the Union, those ethnic groups, to be accurate the Shan and Karenni, can secede from the Union if they choosed to: ten years meant, the Shan and Karenni states were required to wait until January 4, 1958.[3]

The signing of the Panglong agreement or treaty was the basic foundation that gave birth to the Union of Burma as we know it today; And till today, the signing date of the Panglong agreement, February 12 is observed in Burma as the Union Day. The reason why it is important that we re-emphasize the political significance of the Panglong agreement today is not only because it gave birth to the Union of Burma as one common country, but also because the subsequent constitutions of the Union of Burma – provisional constitutions prepared by democratic forces- are based on the terms and conditions set forth in the Panglong agreement by the founding fathers of the Union of Burma. Reflecting on the significance of the Panglong Agreement, a native Chin scholar Lian Hmung Sakhong puts, “the essence of the Panglong agreement was, and is, mutual recognition and respect, based on the principles of political equality, self-determination and voluntary association.”[4]

According to the Panglong agreement, the Union of Burma was originally designed to be a federal country, and not a unitary state. General Aung San, who headed Burma’s independence movement and government as the acting Prime Minister of independent Burma, fully understood that only a federal arrangement would work in a multi-ethnic Burma. In the draft provisions of the 1947 constitution that was approved at AFPFL Convention, ethnic national minorities were granted the right to self-determination, a certain degree of regional autonomy, and separate state legislature in accordance with the terms and conditions set forth in the historic Panglong Agreement.

For instance, a constitutional provision that prescribed constituent State power in section (I) enumerated, “each constituent state shall have its own constitution in conformity with the constitution of the Union and its own specific characteristics and features” and also in section (3), “ the state legislature may exclusively make laws in relation to matters coming within the classes of the subjects next hereinafter enumerated such as constitutional affairs, direct taxation within the state, other than federal taxes and the list goes on.”[5]Unfortunately, before Burma gained independence and prior to the already-approved constitution of 1947 came into effect, General Aung San was assassinated along with his designated cabinet Ministers by his political rival Glone U Saw on July 19, 1947.

One of the major flaws of 1948 constitution was that it did not provide “separate state legislature” to constituent states, which meant that constituent states or federating units had no legislative, administrative, and judicial power of their own such as constituent states in the United States of America and provinces in Canada.

The Union that General Aung San of AFPFL and that of pre-colonial independent leaders of ethnic national minorities built on a genuine federal principle became a Unitary state after General Aung San was assassinated. To better put it, the federal principle-based version of the 1947 constitution was modified as a Unitary state version of the 1948 constitution that nullified provisions of separate state legislature for ethnic national minorities. One of the principal engineers of 1948 Burma’s constitution, U Chan Htoon, admitted, “our constitution was in theory federal, but in practice unitary” and he further added, “ the structure of the Union is not like the United States or Switzerland, there are no separate state legislatures.”[6]

According to the 1948 Constitution, Burma became a unitary state with a fully centralized Union constitution that enshrined a simple majoritarian rule enabling ethnic Burman majority to institutionally marginalize and suppress ethnic national minorities. With constitution being the supreme and highest law of the land in a democratic country, Prime Minister U Nu and his government completely controlled the legislative functions of both Houses of the federal government. To be specific, not only was there no separate state legislatures for sub-units of the Union, but the national legislatures – both Houses of the parliament- during the parliamentary democracy was wholly dominated by ethnic Burman majority. The fact that states did not have state legislature of their own had also meant that ethnic national minorities had no other alternate institutional recourse to safeguard against the expansion of the central government policies. Ethnic-based states were created to a certain extent, but run from the central; the legislative power of state council was devolved from the central government with a complete control from the center.

With the objectives of reforming the dysfunctional Union, leaders of seven ethnic national minorities, to the exclusion of Burman ethnic majority, convened the constitutional conference from June 8 to 16, 1961 at Taungkyi of Shan State. “We convened this conference to address the serious flaws of 1948 Unitary constitution according to the basic principles of a genuine federal Union constitution based on the right of self-determination to ensure equal rights and regional autonomy for ethnic nationalities’ states as we were promised in the Panglong agreement”[7] declared, U Kya Pu, one of the main architects behind the constitutional reform movement. Erroneously equating federalism with secession, which is a common misconception about federalism, outright denial of giving special rights to ethnic national minorities has been the prevalent dogma dictating the formulation and implementation of the Burman-dominated military regime’s policies. Citing the effort of leaders of ethnic national minorities to create a more accommodating Union, as a plot to break away from the Union, General Ne Win staged a military coup, overthrowing the civilian government, dissolving parliament and ending the federal seminar.[8] Since then, saving the Union from disintegration, which has been the successive military regime’s dictum, is driven by the refusal to accept a greater regional autonomy claimed by ethnic national minorities.

Virtually, the institutional arrangements under the Unitary constitution indicated that Burman majority unfairly enjoyed systemic institutional favouritism at the expense of ethnic national minorities. As a noted political Scientist Arend Lijphart correctly spells out, “majority rule in plural societies spells majority dictatorship and civil strife,”[9] a majority dictatorship was what exactly occurred in Burma. For the ethnic national minorities, the Union of Burma they jointly built on equal basis in the historic Panglong agreement in 1947 turned out to be a one lope-sided Union, totally dominated by the ethnic Burman majority; institutionally, they were totally disenfranchised, discriminated, alienated, and unrepresented. A considerable lack of representation in the federal politics that ethnic national minorities faced at the hands of Burman majority can be best described as both institutional and systemic suppression and alienation. With extremely lopsided majority (Burman majority) and minority (ethnic national minorities), simple majority rule was and is not going to be sufficient in politically divided societies like Burma. It resulted, as we had seen during the parliamentary democracy era, in the exclusion of ethnic national minorities and decades-old civil strife. I would argue that the suppression of ethnic national minorities by Burman majority was systemic alienation that had compounded the problem of lack of trust among ethnic groups- especially, lack of trust exist mainly between Burman majority and that of collective ethnic national minorities.

As mentioned above, the retrospective analysis of an institutional breakdown – democratic institution – in Burma demonstrates that over six decades of conflict in Burma is rooted in a constitutional arrangement which fails to recognize the existence of ethno-cultural cleavages, resulting in the denial of power to territorially concentrated ethnic national minorities. To better put it, the real political crisis is rooted in a constitutional dilemma: the lack of constitutional arrangement that did not grant regional autonomy, self-determination and equality to federated states of the Union. The constitution which was originally designed on federal principles ensuring the rights of ethnic people was reversed into the Unitary constitution against the will of ethnic national minorities by leaders of the Burman ethnic majority. In Burma’s politics, the sizable population disparity between a clear ethnic Burman majority with 68 % of the entire population and that of ethnic national minorities has played and will continue to play a significant role because the political fault line in Burma is based on ethnicity or race, cultures, religion, and territory, constituting as a fertile ground for the political mobilisation. In a multi-ethnic country, made up of such ethno-culturally diverse minority, ethnic national minorities are always protective of their distinct ethnic heritages: language, culture, religion, and territorial integrity. Because preservation and promotion of their distinctiveness are so vital to their group’s survival, ethnic national minorities tend to support the political parties and candidates of their own ethnicity or closely align with their groups’ ideological leanings. In that kind of political setting, it is not surprising to see that many political parties are formed in a way that corresponds to the fault lines of ethnic divisions.

Moving forward, it is important to acknowledge that the ethnic national minorities’ fear of tyranny from the Burman ethnic majority is still inherent and real. As such, a written constitution that would stand as a contract between federated units and the Federal government as a prerequisite for those ethnic national minorities to join and form a federal Union of Burma. Ethnic national minorities of Burma require a written constitution with a clear division of powers between the two level of governments: (a) as a bulwark against the domination of ethnic Burman majority and (b) as a guarantee to their ethnic national rights considered to be inherent. Without securing such a prior written constitution first, it is clear that no ethnic minorities of Burma will have any incentive to cooperate as members in a future democratic Union of Burma. Therefore, for an ethno-culturally diverse and divided society like Burma, a constitutional federation that would accommodate the aspirations of ethnic national minorities with separate legislatures and simultaneously integrate all federated units into one common polity under one flag is the best suited form of governance for the multi-national Burma.

By Salai Za Ceu Lian

[1] Maung Maung, Burma’s Constitution, 2nd Edition. (The Hague : Martinus Nijhoff, 1961): 223- 229.

[2] Matthew J. Wellton, “Ethnicty, Conflict, and History in Burma: the Myths of Panglong Agreement,” Asian Survey; VOL. XLVIII, NO. 6, (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008): 889-910.

[3] Joself Silverstein, Burma: military rule and the politics of stagnation, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 59.

[4] David C Williams and Lian H. Sakhong. Designing Federalism in Burma. (Chiangmai, Thailand: The UNLD Press, 2005), 12.

[5] Maung Maung, Burma’s Constitution, 2nd Edition. (The Hague : Martinus Nijhoff, 1961), 240.

[6] Shan Herald Agency For News, Records of Ethnic nationalties’ Conference on Burma’s Constitutional reform. (Chiangmai, Thailand : Shan Herald Agency For News, 1961): 69.

[7] Shan Herald Agency For News, Records of Ethnic nationalties’ Conference on Burma’s Constitutional reform. (Chiangmai, Thailand : Shan Herald Agency For News, 1961): 71.

[8] Joself Silverstein, Burma: military rule and the politics of stagnation, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 29.

[9] Christina Murray and Richard Simeon, “Recognition without empowerment: Minorities in a democratic South Africa,” International Journal of Constitutional Law; (October 2007): 710.

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