(Editorial) Union Day or Dominion Day? Revisiting the Spirit of Panglong
12 February 2012: (Editorial) Each year since the military coup of 1962, the Union Day has been celebrated in the Union of Burma without much substance or historical significance. As the nation turns 65 years today, we can expect yet another hollow celebration this year, despite the recent measures of reform introduced by President Thein Sein.
In political terms, the word Union means ‘the joining together or being joined together’ of different geographically-defined political units. The term itself implies the voluntariness and equality of the parties taking part in the Union – a partnership. This is exactly what the Panglong Conference achieved 65 years ago: different territories joining together on a voluntary basis and on equal status to build a modern independent country called the Union of Burma. This, in simplistic term, is the original Panglong spirit.
But that spirit unfortunately exists only in name today. For six decades, a single dominant group backed by the power of the guns, has dominated the majority of the founding partners of the Union of Burma through the use of constitutional, institutional and military means. This remains a reality post-2010 election and in a ‘changing’ Union of Burma.
The words of General Aung San best remind us of what the founding fathers of the Union of Burma originally envisaged at Panglong 65 years ago. Representing the Ministerial Burma, Aung San said:
“When we build our new Burma, shall we build it as a Union or a Unitary State? In my opinion it will not be feasible to set up a Unitary State. We must set up a Union with a properly regulated provision to set up the rights of the ethnic nationalities.”
The collective experience of the majority of the partners of the ‘Union’ for the last sixty plus years, however, tells us that, in practical terms, February 12 means more of a Dominion Day than a true Union Day.
Yes, there have been a series of recent efforts by the new government to negotiate and enter into ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups. However, the ceasefire agreements are only the first step towards further dialogue on more substantive political issues.
Moreover, it is almost certain that during the political dialogue down the line, the ethnic armed groups will repeat their decades-long demands for a new constitutional arrangement that will reflect the original spirits of Panglong, which is equality and autonomy within a federal constitutional structure.
And what’s more, it is also almost certain that the Burmese government will insist that the ethnic groups need to try and realize that change through the Parliamentary channel, which is near impossible under the extremely rigid amendment procedure provided in the 2008 constitution.
The scenario then could potentially be a return to a full-scale civil war. The ethnic groups have repeatedly made clear that only through revisiting and realizing the original spirit of Panglong can the Union be re-established and sustained.
It is now up to the Burmese government to decide whether they want to give the Union Day its true meaning by embracing the true spirit of Panglong, or carry on with the failed policy of the last six decades.