April 14, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Rebuilding Mutual Respect through the Spirit of Panglong

12 February 2011: Every year on February 12 we observe Union Day to commemorate the birth of the Union of Burma through the historic Panglong Agreement. The agreement was signed by legitimate representatives of independent pre-colonial self-governing nations such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan, and Burma states proper, on February 12, 1947 at Panglong, Shan State. The genuine spirit of the Panglong Agreement was and is a mutual recognition of political equality and ethno-cultural diversity based on language, ethnicity, culture, and territory irrespective of the sizable disproportion in population.

No parties to the Panglong Agreement were forced to sign against their will. They signed voluntarily, demonstrating the rightful and inherent free will absolutely essential in deciding future destiny. The visionary leaders signing the historic document not only recognized each other as equal partners in collectively building a Union, they also envisioned that by forming one common nation together, they would build a stronger and more prosperous Union called the Union of Burma.

According to the Panglong agreement, the Union of Burma was originally designed to be a federal country, not a unitary state. General Aung San, who headed Burma’s independence movement, fully understood that only a federal arrangement would work in multi-ethnic Burma. In the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) convention in May, 1947, he asked, “now when we build our new Burma shall we build it as a Union or as a unitary state?” And, he answered, “In my opinion, it will not be feasible to set up a unitary state. We must set up a Union with properly regulated provisions to safeguard the rights of the national minorities.” Following the Panglong agreement was signed, under General Aung San’s leadership, the Constitution, which was known as 1947 constitution of Burma, drafted on the terms and conditions agreed upon in the Panglong Agreement.

Then, hopes and fortunes changed. Two months after the assassination of General Aung San, the new leader of the AFPFL, U Nu, revised and amended the already-approved provisions.  Nu, who served as the Prime Minister of Burma from 1948 to 1962 and  U Chan Htoon, a constitutional advisor to U Nu, warped the agreement into that of a unitary constitution. The move enabled the Burman majority to dominate Union politics. Since Burma gained independence, ethnic nationalities which joined the Union of Burma voluntarily have been victims of tyranny at the hands of the Burman majority. Institutionally, ethnic national minorities have been disenfranchised, alienated, and suppressed against their will. The  lack of representation in federal politics can be best described as systemic suppression and alienation.

Until today, due to the betrayal of the Panglong spirit and breach of Panglong agreements by U Nu and successive civilian and military governments, the hopes and dreams of building a strong Union based on a federal system has been dashed. Gone is the dream of self-rule for federating units and shared rule for a common Union.  The retrospective analysis of Burma’s conflict has proven that the intransigence and failure to respect and embrace the true spirit of the Panglong agreement – equality, self-determination, and ethno-cultural diversity – has led Burma into the theatre of political crises.

On the other hand, while ethnic national minorities have a strong sense of protecting and preserving their territorial integrity and distinct national heritages, they have all opted to form a stable Union with the Burman ethnic group. In fact, one of the productive sides of the ‘seven-decades-old conflict’ in Burma is this: leaders of all mainstream democratic forces in Burma – both Burman and non-Burman – acknowledge that the restoration of a simple democratic government is not a solution to the ethnic conflict in Burma. The conflict, after all, is rooted in constitutional crises. For a multi-ethnic Burma, we need a federal Union of Burma. To that end, there have been a series of agreements signed between mainstream democratic forces and leaders of ethnic national minorities embracing the genuine spirit of the Panglong agreement. In fact, a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Union of Burma requires us – all people who yearn for long-lasting peace, national reconciliation, freedom, self-determination, and human rights in Burma – to fully embrace the genuine spirit of the Panglong agreement which give birth to the Union of Burma. On February 12, we have an opportunity to show this spirit.

Learning from long-standing experiences of civil war and military subjugation, the democratic forces of Burma believe that only a constitutional federation is the most viable system of governance practically workable for ethno-culturally diverse and divided Union of Burma. The sizable population disparity between ethnic groups has played and will continue to play a significant role in Burmese politics given the fault lines based on ethnic background or race, religion, and territory. Often times, the claim of politics in Burma indeed is the claim of ethnicity, upon which the main point of political mobilization was and is going to be based. Therefore, I would argue that constitutional federation – asymmetrical federalism with a written constitution – is the only viable governance framework workable for a multi-ethnic and politically divided country such as Burma. Such an arrangement will finally realize the original dream at Panglong: shared rule for a common Union and self-rule for federating states. A renewed and long-lasting relationship built on the solid foundation of mutual respect.

Salai Za Ceu Lian, Commentary Editor at Chinland Guardian, holds a Master degree in Political Science from the University of Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at [email protected]

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