(Toward the Political Dialogue on Constitutional Issues in Burma)
Salai Ngun Cung Lian[1]

James J. Robinson Fellow
Prelude: Political crisis, ethnic conflict, civil war, and all other problems facing by the people of Burma for over five decades is a byproduct of conflict of interests over constitutional principles between Burman and non-Burman nationals.[2] The Burman ethnic nationals, which is not only majority in population but also dominating ethnic group of the Burmese Army persistently want unitary type of Constitution. Contrary to this, the non-Burman ethnic nationals, minority in population as well as dominated nationals in national, state, and local institutions desire to live together with Burman ethnic national within the framework of federal constitution, which can safeguard, promote, and protect their ethnic national interests and identities. This conflict of interest over the constitutional principle between the Burman ethnic national and non-Burman ethnic nationals is the root of the political crisis as well as the generator of ethnic conflict, hatred, and disunity among multi-ethnic nationals in the Union of Burma. There is only one but simple solution to solve the conflicts and crisis in Burma is to have a constitutional dialogue among National League for Democracy, State Peace and Development Council, and non-Burman ethnic nationals and allocate the problems within federal constitutional principle, which not only will fulfill the non-Burman ethnic nationals’ interests but also safeguard the Burman ethnic nationals’ interests as well.  The following sub-titles analyze the defects of the previous Constitutions of the Union of Burma as well as draft Constitutions of Burma initiated by the NLD, SPDC, and the NCUB, which failed to fulfill the desires of Burman and non-Burman ethnic nationals in the Union of Burma.
Panglong Agreement
The Panglong Agreement is equally important for the people in modern Burma as the way in which the “Declaration of Independence 1776” is important for the Americans in fundamental nature. If the agreement was not reached during negotiation among the representative of Ministerial Burma, the representatives of Chin, Kachin, and Shan leaders, there would have not been the UNION OF BURMA in modern world history. The signatories had negotiated and reached final agreement to form a UNION because they all guaranteed to treat each other with equalities in all aspects including rights and privileges in politic, economic, cultural, and self-determination right of each people within their own territories. The sincerity and trust of signatories of Panglong Agreement was revealed in Article 210 of the Constitution of Union of Burma (1948) by guaranteeing secession right of signatories state from the Union of Burma after ten years of independence. Therefore, the Panglong Agreement is the only contractual legal document of founding the Modern of Burma so that the essence of the Panglong Agreement needs to be respect and perverse by not only Burmese people but also international governments, organizations, and associations who want to see continuation of the existence of the Union of Burma in international politic and relation.AFPFL Draft Constitution for Burma[3]

After the Panglong Agreement was signed, the Anti Fascist Peoples Freedom League (AFPFL) initiated to draft the Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories. The AFPFL elected General Aung San as a leader of Drafting Committee along with 110 Committee Members. The Draft Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories was brought to the AFPFL National Convention and subsequently approved enormously in May 27, 1947.

The substances of the Draft Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories was purely based not only federal principles but also the Draft Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories guaranteed each unit (State) to have their own unit (State) Government to perform, safeguard, promote, and protect the interests and benefits of their own states.

However, 57 days after the draft Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories was approved, General Aung San and his interim leaders were assassinated by their political rivals, who refused to grant equal rights and privileges to non-Burman ethnic nationals. The Governor of Burma immediately authorized U Nu to takeover the position of General Aung San and ordered him to lead the national movement into independence.

U Nu, the new leader of transitory period was not participated in Panglong Agreement so that did not understand the essence of Panglong Agreement as well as who was a person critical to grant non-Burman ethnic nationals to have equal rights with Burman ethnic nationals during negotiation of General Aung San and Attlee on Burmese independence. U Nu authorized U Chan Htun, legal consultant of Constitution Drafting Committee of AFPFL to revise the “Approved Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories” to approval of the interim legislature that was due in September. U Chan Htun and few Burman nationalists as well as Cambridge Legal scholars revised substantively the “Approved Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories” from federal type of constitution to unitary type of constitution. The revised “Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories” was brought to the interim legislature by U Nu and asked the speaker of the interim legislature for approval from the interim legislators without debate and subsequently approved on September 24, 1947. The revised Constitution of the Union of Burma came into force on January 4, 1948 when Burma was officially granted independence by Great Britain.

Constitution of the Union of Burma (1948)

Gradually, the non-Burman ethnic national leaders, politicians, and scholars realized that the Constitution of the Union of Burma (1948) not only disregard the essence of Panglong Agreement but also was substantively different from the “Draft Constitution Approved by the AFPFL National Convention”. They also realized that the Constitution of Union of Burma (1948) allowed majority Burman nationals to manipulate all legislative, executive, and judiciary powers over non-Burman ethnic nationals.

Therefore, the non-Burman ethnic national leaders gathered in Taunggyi, the capital city of Shan State in 1961 to discuss the defects of the Constitution of Union of Burma (1948). Over 200 non-Burman politicians, leaders, and scholars agreed to amend the defects of the Constitution of Union of Burma (1948) within democratic principals and approved the drafted “Federal Bill” to table at the Union Parliament. Consequently, they also urged Prime Minister U Nu to initiate Federal Seminar in Rangoon to discuss the future of Burma Union and implementation of federalism in the Union of Burma.

The Prime Minister and all Burman ethnic national leaders understood that Federal Bill was ready to table in the Union Parliament for amending the Constitution of the Union of Burma (1948) and it will be passed without difficulties since all non-Burman ethnic national leaders favor to amend the Constitution according to the “Federal Bill”. They also understood that if the Constitution of the Union of Burma was amended according to the “Federal Bill,” the Burman will have equal status with non-Burman nationals although they are majority in population and in some other aspects. The Burman nationalists, who were the high-ranking officers in Burmese Army, realized that the only way to safeguard Burman domination over non-Burman ethnic nationals is removing the democratic regime by force. Therefore, the Burmese Army took the power on March 2, 1962.
Constitution of Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1974)

After the coup, Brigadier General Aung Gyi, the second most powerful in the coup have said to the media that the reason of the military coup was to prevent from disintegration of Burma Union and also indirectly indicated the “Federal Movement” was an evident to prove the coup. The Revolutionary Council arrested all participants in the Taunggyi Conference and sent them to jail without due process of law. Many prominent non-Burman ethnic national leaders were secretly murdered in jail. Subsequently, the Revolutionary Council drafted a new Constitution after ten years that came to force in 1974. The new Constitution not only disregarded the essence of Panglong Agreement, but also constitutionally expanded Burman ethnic national domination toward non-Burman ethnic nationals by creating Seven Divisions out of Burman inhabitant area. Therefore, under the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1974), the Burman had monopolized all legislative, executive, and judicial power by creating Seven Divisions and Seven non-Burman ethnic national States.
NLD’s Interim Constitution

Although the Socialist military regime collapsed in 1988 and the NLD was voted for to restore democracy in Burma by the people, the NLD has failed to carry out the peoples’ mandate due to two significantly important factors. First, NLD failed to draft the Interim Constitution of Burma based on the essence of Panglong Agreement, the Draft Constitution of Burma Union and Its Territories approved by AFPFL National Convention in 1947 and the Federal Bill of Taunggyi Conference. Instead of drafting a new Interim Constitution to retain the “TRUST” of Signatories of Panglong Agreement and the non-Burman ethnic national leaders, the NLD cheaply revised the Constitution of the Union of Burma (1948) and proclaimed to be used as interim Constitution for transitory period. The responses of non-Burman ethnic nationals on the NLD’s initiative were mute and the NLD consequently lost the trust of non-Burman ethnic nationals. Secondly, majority of NLD’s top leaders are former military officers who were ousted by General Newin so that restoration of democracy in Burma is not priority for them but toppling the present military regime is always their first priority in their head. Although, their supreme leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had expressed her willingness to form a Federal Union of Burma to solve political problems in Burma but she has not received warm responses from NLD’s top leaders as well as the Burman ethnic national on this regard.

SPDC’s Draft Constitution

In 1992, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, renamed as the State Peace and Development Council in 1997, issued a decree and initiated to draft the Constitution of the Union of Burma. The SPDC’s clear intention is to legalize the military rule in Burma within constitutional framework so that the NLD had withdrew from the National Convention. The provisions of the SPDC’s draft Constitution will not only bring the legitimacy of military rule in Burma through the Constitution but also it will create a strong central government to control every local, regional, and state entities within the Union.

NCUB’s Draft Constitution

Since 1992, the National Council of Union of Burma (NCUB), composed with members of National Democratic Front, Democratic Alliance of Burma, NLD (Liberated Area), and Members of Parliament Union initiated to draft the Future Constitution of the Federal Union of Burma and the second edition of the draft constitution has been published in English and Burmese. Unfortunately the NCUB draft Constitution clearly reveals that there were gigantic confusions and lacks of understanding on the federalism, federation, de-centralization, separation of powers, checks and balances of powers among the participants of the NCUB Draft constitution process. In addition, the participants of NCUB draft constitution clearly isolated the essence of Panglong Agreement, the Draft Constitution Approved by the AFPFL National Convention, and the Federal Bill of 1961.

The National Reconciliation Program’s Initiative

The NRP has organized and sponsored for creation of the State Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) for existing non-Burman ethnic national states – Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karen, Kayah, and Mon ethnic nationals since 2000. Prior to the NRP’s initiative, the Chins in international have formed the Chin Forum and initiated for drafting the Future Constitution of Chinland in the Federal Union of Burma and which is due to publish its fourth revised version of the draft Constitution.

Although all non-Burman ethnic nationals have been giving attention to write their own STATE constitutions according to democratic principles and practices with limited resources, the Burman ethnic nationals have not shown interest to draft a Burman State Constitution for the Federal Union of Burma.

This evidence has led many non-Burman ethnic nationals to conclude that either the “Burman military leaders in SPDC” or “Pro-democratic Burman nationals” in and outside the Burma are sharing the same sentiment in connection with disregarding the essence of Panglong Agreement.
Suggestions to the US State Department

Therefore, in order to solve the political crisis and ethnic conflicts in the Union of Burma, the US State Department should take the following initiatives as priorities:

1.      To call the NLD, UNLD[4], SPDC, CDC, and NUCB to have Dialogue on the Constitutional Issues for the Federal Union of Burma based on the essence of Panglong Agreement, the Draft Constitution Approved by the AFPFL Convention, and the Federal Bill of 1961;

2.      To engage and play as a third parties for the Dialogue on the Constitutional Issues for the Future of Federal Union of Burma among the NLD, UNLD, SPDC, CDC, and NCUB members; and

3.      To pressure the EU, ASEAN, UN, and other interest parties to give pressures for the Dialogue on the Constitutional Issues for the Future of Federal Union of Burma among the NLD, UNLD, SPDC, CDC, and NCUB.

[1] Salai Ngun Cung Lian is a candidate for Doctor of Juridical Science degree at Indiana University School of Law. He is a co-convener of the Chinland Constitution Drafting Committee; Consultant for Transitional Justice in Burma (The Burma Fund); and Legal Consultant of the Chin Human Rights Organization. He can be reached at < [email protected] e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it > (or) at (317-788-8918) or (317-694-0672).

[2] In this paper Burman means a majority ethnic group also known as “Bama” or “Myanmar” by non-Burman ethnic nationals in the Union of Burma. The non-Burman ethnic nationals include Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Shan, Naga, Mon, Lahu, Pa-O and so on.

[3] The first Draft Constitution for Burma Union and Its Territories was initiated by the Anti Fascist Peoples Freedom League (AFPFL), under the leadership of General Aung San, U Bawin (the elder brother of General Aungsan), and 110 Constitution Drafting Committee members. The Draft Constitution for Burma Union and Its Territories was brought to the AFPFL National Convention for approval and subsequently approved without dissented vote on May 27, 1947.

[4] UNLD stands for the United Nationalities League for Democracy, the non-Burman political parties which was formed in 1991 and also the alliance of NLD.

By Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe

November – A

Dialogue: From International to Home-Grown

Since the May (2003) ambush in Monywa of Daw Aung San Suukyi’s motorcade by the regime, there has arisen two contending views of the prospect for dialogue and national reconciliation. They concern the question of whether  there can be a home-grown solution or other solution requiring significant external inputs in order to resolve the long state-society conflict in Burma.

One section of the democratic movement takes the position that the May ambush no longer makes it possible for a home-grown resolution of the conflict to succeed.  As a result some elements of the movement have been pushing for multi-national and/or US intervention as in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They say that the May ambush amply proves that the junta  the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council)  is “insincere” and “bad, bad, bad”.  This implies that whatever the SPDC does or says, has no credibility, leaving no room for meaningful negotiations.

On the other hand, ASEAN leaders and the Thai government — Burma’s neighbors  maintain that the “democratization” roadmap unveiled in September by the newly appointed Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt, may represent a tentative beginning of a home-grown, viable peace process.  

This home-grown “democratization” roadmap revolves around the re-convening of the National Convention unilaterally designed and coercively imposed by the military junta  in 1992.

That process has, however, withered on the vine and was consigned to limbo because the junta failed to achieve its objectives, despite the fact that it filled the “convention” with hand-picked delegates. Resistance within the convention by the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) led by Khun Tun Oo,  and the subsequent boycott by the delegates of the NLD (National League for Democracy) in 1996, hastened the demise (albeit temporary, as it turns out) of SLORC’s “home-grown” transition or “democratization” process.

The attempt by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt to retrieve this process from limbo has been hailed by the Thai Prime Minister, Khun Thaksin  along with other neighboring leaders and governments  as going in the right direction. Thaksin has also worked behind the scene to get China and India on board. In addition he been engaged in lobbying Burma’s ethnic nationalities (non-Burman) armed forces actively engaged in combat with the SPDC, to participate in Khin Nyunt’s home-grown process.

According to well-informed observers of the armed ethnic groups, namely, the Karen, Karenni, and Shan,  it will be most difficult for them to oppose the Thai Prime Minister’s effort to get them to participate in Khin Nyunt’s “home grown” process.

As well, the ethnic nationalities both inside the country and those operating  along the borders of Burma with Thailand, Bangladesh, and India have  despite the May ambush  reiterated their commitment to national reconciliation and tripartite dialogue. The ENSCC (Ethnic Nationalities Solidarity and Cooperation Committee), a committee of top leaders and their advisors working with all non-Burman groups and forces  armed, political, social, religious — inside and outside Burma, has also unveiled its “roadmap” for democratization in September, a few days after Khin Nyunt’s.

The ENSCC’s roadmap proposes a transition and dialogue process which calls for a National Unity Congress to be composed of the election-winning parties, the SPDC, and all significant non-Burman leaders and representatives (inside and outside). The ENSCC roadmap also calls for an interim arrangement where the present government will continue to govern and facilitate the negotiation process, in conjunction with the United Nations, neighboring and other governments (presumably, including the United States), and regional groupings like ASEAN and the European Union.  In its second or final phase, the ENSCC initiative calls for a constitutional assembly to draft a new Union Constitution based on a federal arrangement, and new elections to establish a government for a Union of Burma that is democratic, equitable, and peaceful.   

One of the main challenges to implementing any roadmap is the issue of inclusiveness and participation. With regard to the participation of the non-Burman leaders and forces in the so-called National Convention, the stumbling block  with regard to the SPDC  is the issue of inclusion.  

Critics of Khin Nyunt’s initiative  including Kofi Annan — have pointed out that it is not sustainable, and will not be meaningful, if Daw Suukyi and the NLD are not included, and if the process is not transparent and democratic. The  joint-statement of the ceasefire armies in October expressed such a view as well, and it also reflects the position of other non-Burman forces as well. This statement was issued, surprisingly, by the UWSA (United Wa State Army) and leaders of two special ceasefire regions, thought to be close to Khin Nyunt.

Given a situation where Khin Nyunt’s roadmap is aimed at achieving “democratization” in a closed process and a restrictive environment, Prime Minister Thaksin, who apparently has close relations with his Burmese counterpart, has a very big load to carry.

The heaviest and the most crucial load for him is, not only the task of persuading Prime Minister Khin Nyunt to be open and pragmatic, but also to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the SPDC, and to establish the government in Burma as a meaningful decision-making body, one that is in command of the armed forces and elements within it.

It is likely that Prime Minister Thaksin will approach the Burmese democratization problem with his usual “can-do” competence, pragmatism, diplomatic skills and political savvy. Supporting this image of Prime Minister Thaksin as a positive and constructive force, is the planned regional conference on Burma, which would likely include the participation of China.

This conference on Burma and “democratization” will  among other things  legitimate Khin Nyunt’s initiative, give it a mantle of being  “home-grown”.  One significant and likely result of this process will be the de-internationalizing of Burma’s politics and its insulation from the global arena. This would lead in turn to a situation where the UN, the United States, EU governments will be left behind, like so many shadows floating  on the fringe.

The de-internationalization of Burma issues, and the “home grown” cordon created and protected by neighboring governments will certainly strengthen Khin Nyunt’s hand in particular, and perhaps even contribute to the greater autonomy of the government from the military’s political council (i.e., the junta of generals).  

What is interesting is the push by neighboring governments to politically insulate Burma and Khin Nyunt’s “democratization” process from the international arena. This insulation will likely cause the ethnic Burman democratic opposition (operating outside) and the NLD inside to more strongly and vigorously oppose the SPDC’s so-called home-grown  “democratization” process.   It is probable that Daw Suukyi herself will reject any “home grown” process that will in her view be one-sided, opaque, and repressive.

This will most likely give rise to a situation where those forces inside  especially the non-Burman  will either have to withdraw from or boycott the ongoing “national convention” process or to continue working within this “home grown” framework.

The problem for the non-Burman ethnic nationalities inside is that the withdraw/boycott option is a “no, no”, a non-flier, all the more so if the international community cannot offer a non-“home grown” option.  They are inside and are, in fact, the frontline troops who, as such, cannot run away from the battle zone.

What could come out therefore of the “home-grown” approach of the two Prime Ministers  Thaksin and Khin Nyunt —  is what would appear to observers as a serious  “fissure” in the ranks of the democratic movement. However, it must be recalled  kept clearly in mind  that the common aim of all elements within the movement is tripartite dialogue, and there is, besides, a strong commitment to democratic transition and nation-building based on the Panglong Spirit (or federalism).

“Fissures” within the movement and as well within the military camp is natural, even inevitable — such is the nature of any political process that is dynamic, that moves forward, and is not stuck in a stagnant, decayed, and rigid status-quo.  The key to progress, to achieving one’s goal, lies in the capacity of leaders to build bridges, mend fences, strike bargains, adapt to changes and new challenges, and most importantly, to build unity from diversity.  Those who worry about fissures associated with or inherent in the dynamics of political interaction, or are over-anxious about unity (however conceived), betray a very static, carved-in-stone kind of view about politics.

In conclusion,  political change and achieving national reconciliation in Burma, depends on whether the UN, the US, the EU, etc., will go along passively and timidly with the “home grown” formula (more by being silent than anything else), or whether they will come up with an alternative approach or initiative.

Success for any process of political change (or transition) in Burma  in the direction of democratization to which the SPDC claims to be committed to as well  and the sustainability of the outcomes  will necessarily  depend on the focus of the international community on the problems, conflict, and issues that have confronted  the peoples of Burma for many dismal decades.

Kenneth VanBik

Department of Linguistics

University of California, Berkeley

1.         Introduction

This paper is an investigation of the origin of the two names Kuki and Chin which have been used as a cover term referring to many people and languages  in Manipur-Assam State (India), the Naga Hills (India),  Mizoram State (India), the Chittaguang Hills (Bangladesh), Chin State (Burma), Sagaing Division (Burma), and Magwe Division (Burma). The total population of the speakers of  Kuki-Chin languages is quite difficult to estimate as they are distributed too widely, but it is safe to say that there are well above a million speakers of these languages, as the whole Mizoram State of India and the Chin State of Burma are occupied primarily by Kuki-Chin speakers. The Kuki-Chin branch belongs to the Sino-Tibetan (Sinto-Tibeto-Burman) language family.


The term Kuki  first appeared in Rawlins (1787:187)  as “Cuci’s, or Mountainers of Tipra”. With the different spelling “Kukis”, the name was perpetuated by British administrators such as Lt.-Colonel J. Shakespear (Shakespear 1912) and C.A.Soppit (1893) to indicate the migrants into Manipur State, Naga Hills, and the North Cachar Hills of India. They admitted themselves that the term was not recogized by the people themselves  (Shakespear 1912:2), but still used it as a cover term for all these people “who have so much in common, both in language, manners, customs, and system of internal government” (Soppit 1893:iv). According to Bareigts (1981:17),   “(Shendu) et Kuki sont des termes employes de facon plutot pejorative par les Bengali et les Assamais”. Bareigts= hypothesis is possible as pejorative exonyms are not uncommon in this part of the world.  An Indian linguist, Shree Krishan (1980:2) argued that the term Kuki  “has its origin in their own (i.e. Thado) language”. Krishan traced the word as thecombination of two syllable:  ku  from xul ‘hole’ and ki from kit ‘again’ or ‘afterward’.  Therefore, Kuki means the people coming again from the hole, the story that these clans shared regarding their origin (Krishan 1980:3). However, Krishan’s argument is not convincing. In compounding, these languages do not  normally lose their final consonants, as deleting these final consonants could make the meaning totally different. Assuming that ku comes from  xul  (which is doubtful), deleting final -l  in compounding would make  xul  ‘hole’ into  xu, or ku  which would mean  ‘smoke’.

It appears that the best way to interpret Kuki  for now is to take what  Rawlins (1787) modified it with, i.e., “mountaineers” therefore “high landers” until we can trace the origin of the  word to counter-check Bareigts’ source, i.e., the meaning of Kuki in the dialects of Bengali and Assamese.

1.2. Chin

The word “Chin” , the name which manily designates an ethnic identity in Burma, has been misinterpreted in many social contexts. Because its modern pronunciation is similar to that of the Burmese word >basket=, some people assume that the Chin people are so called because they are people who carry baskets.  There is a well known joke among the Chins themselves: There was a Chin who visited Rangoon. One morning, he was waiting a bus at the Kili-Lanmadaw bus stop. And he was very angry when the bus arrived, because the ticket vendor was shouting, “di chin ma tin ne” which literally means >do not bring on this chin=. And he shout back to the ticket vendor “ba le kwa! chin le lu be” >Hey! Chins are people too!=  But what he failed to notice was a scenerio where the ticket vendor  was trying to prevent a vegetable-merchant from  transporting his goods in a large >chin= in  that passenger bus.

To some it might sound strange that the above incident was a result of a sound change in Burmese language.  As will be shown later how that sound change took place in Burmese, the old Burmese initial khy-  and khr-  merged into ch- which is the modern form. As a result, the old Burmese words  khyang (as in tu-nge-khyang >friend=) and khrang >basket= have the same pronunciation in modern Burmese.

Many scholars have speculated on the origin of the term Chin.  According to Luce (1959:25), Chin  is the modern form of archaic Burmese khyang which is still found in the Arakanese dialect of  Burmese. Luce speculated that this word must mean “allies” or “comrade” as in tu-nge-khyang (Written Burmese form) which mean “friends” in modern Burmese. Therefore, “Chin” is an exonym applied by the Burmans to the Chins which has an origin in the term  ,  khyang,  meaning “allies” or “comrades” in Old Burmese. However, it is puzzling to think that the Burmans would want to call “allies” or “comrades” the Chin, who were a constant threat to the security of their (Burman) villages (cf. Vum Son 1986:20).  According to Woodman  (1962:381-421), the main reason that the British annexed Chin hills to Burma proper was because of the constant invasion and harassment of the British ruled Burman and Shan villages by the Chins.

According to Carey and Tucker (1896:3), the name  Chins  “is said to be a Burmese corruption of the Chinese >Jin=, or >Yen=, meaning >man=”. This pattern of speculation is further pursued by native scholars such as Lian Sakhong (2000: 57ff) and H. Kamkhenthang (1988:3f). The speculation is that the word Chin is cognate to Chinese >Jin= or >Yen= which is no longer recognized by the Kuki-Chin people as their collective name in modern time. According to Prof. B. Kalgren, however, the Old Chinese form for >Jin= or >Yen= which could mean >man= is *nian (Karlgreen 1957:110, #388a-e).  Therefore, it is quite a stretch to speculate that the Kuki-Chin people would call themselves as Chin  at some point in their history.

It appears that the origin of the term actually lies in the language of the Asho Chin (aka Plains Chin) – the Chin group with which the Burmans first come into contact.  In Asho Chin, a person is called hklaung (Joorman 1906:12). Therefore, they called themselves, Asho hklaung ‘Asho person’. This kind of naming is very common among the Kuki-Chin groups, as in  Lai-mi = Lai-person/people, Zo-mi = Zo person/people. When the Burmans met the Asho Chin, they (the Burmans) took the latter part of their  (Asho Chin) name as a designation them. But, the Burmese had already lost the kl- affricate.

Therefore, the closest  affricate that they can use was khy- , and as a consequence, the term Khyang appeared to designate any Chin group.  In fact, in old Pagan inscriptions (Luce 1959:25), the writer(s) attempted to write the names of these people as closely as possible to its Asho Chin pronunciation. Both spellings, khyang and khlang  are recorded for the same people.

Comparison between written Burmese (WB) and modern Burmese (MB) shows how khy- became ch-  in the history of Burmese (Benedict & Matisoff 1943, LTBA 3:1:iii-x). Wheatley (1982:18-19) also argued convincingly that the three phonetic shifts from WB to MB form a “drag chain” beginning with s  to  th (phonetically dental fricatve) .

1. s  >  th  2. c, ch  >   s 3.        ky, kr >    c khy,khr   >    ch

The claim of the author is that the term Chin originated in the Asho Chin language, i.e., The Asho Chin word khlang (or hklaung) was pronounced khyang by the Burmans, till the Burmese language changed its initial  khy-  to  ch-, dragging the name along with it.


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Sakhong, Lian. 2000. Religion and Politics among the Chin People in Burma (1896- 1949).Upsala University, Sweden.

Savidge, Fred. W. 1908.  Grammar and Dictionary of the Lakher Language. Allahabad (India): The Pioneer Press. Shaha, Brojo, N. 1884. A Grammar of the Lushai Language. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Press.

Shakespear, J. Lt.-Colonel. 1912. The Lushai Kuki Clan. Aizawl, Mizoram: Tribal Research Institute (Reprinted 1975).

Shaw, William. 1929. The Thadou Kukis. Delhi: Cultural Publishing House. Soppitt. C.A. 1893. An Outline Grammar of the Rangkhol-Lushai Language. Aizawl, Mizoram: Tribal Research Institute (Reprinted 1976).

Vum Son. 1986. Zo History. Aizawl, Mizoram, India: published by author.

Wheatley, Julian. 1982. Burmese: A Grammatical Sketch. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, Berkeley.

Woodman, Dorothy. 1962. The Making of Burma. London: The Cresset Press.

By Lian H Sakhong

As the title indicates, this paper investigates, by applying a comprehensive approach of ethno-symbolic theory, who the Chin are?  Why can they be described as separate ethnic group? What are their chief features that distinguish the Chin as separate ethnic nationalities from other human collectives or ethnic groups? And what criteria make it possible for them to be recognized as a distinctive people and nationality in Burma?

Anthropologists such as A. D. Smith, suggest that there are six main features, which serve to define “ethnic nationality”. These are: (i) a common proper name, (ii) a myth of common descent, (iii) a link with a homeland, (iv) collective historical memories, (v) one or more elements of common culture, and (vi) a sense of solidarity. [1] A causal link between the “ethnicity” and the formation of an “independent homeland” or “Autonomous State within the Union” — which the Chin and other non-Burman nationalities in the Union of Burma today are fighting so hard for — is the search for what Clifford Geertz called “primordial identities”, that is, the search for the past to find the evidence of the existence of “collective memories, symbols, values and myths, which so often define and differentiate” the Chin as a distinctive people and nationality throughout history. [2] However, since I am going to opt for a comprehensive approach, I shall not limit myself within any single theory of either “primordialism” or “circumstantialism” but apply both theories when they are deemed to be appropriate the context of the study as I explain the ethnicity of the Chin.

One of the main arguments in this paper is that the word “Chin” is not a foreign tongue but the Chin in its origin, which comes from the root word “Chin-lung”. According to the myth of the origin, the Chin people emerged into this world from the bowels of the earth or a cave or a rock called “Chin-lung”, [3] which is spelled slightly differently by different scholars based on various Chin dialects and local traditions, such as “Chhinlung”, “Chinn-lung”, “Chie’nlung”, “Chinglung”, “Ciinlung”, “Jinlung”, “Sinlung”, “Shinlung”, “Tsinlung”, and so on. In doing this, I am going to differentiate between national name of “Chin” and tribal names such as Asho, Cho, Khuami, Laimi, Mizo and Zomi. In other words, I shall argue that term “Chin” is the national name of the Chin, and the terms such as Asho, Cho, Khuami, Laimi, Mizo and Zomi are tribal names under their national name of “Chin”.

In this study, I shall therefore define the Chin people as a ‘nationality’ or ‘ethnic nationality’, and Chinland or Chinram [4] as a ‘nation’, but not as a nation-state, based on already well-recognized theories but also based on the traditional Chin concepts of Miphun, Ram, and Phunglam. The meaning and concept of Miphun is an ‘ethnie’ or a ‘race’ or a ‘people’ who believe that they come from a common descent or ancestor. Ram is a homeland, a country or a nation with well-defined territory and claimed by a certain people who have belonged to it historically; and the broad concept of Phunglam is ‘ways of life’, which includes almost all cultural and social aspects of life, religious practices, belief and value systems, customary law and political structure and the many aesthetic aspects of life such as dance, song, and even the customs of feasts and festivals, all the elements in life that ‘bind successive generations of members together’ as a people and a nationality, and at the same time separate them from others.

The Chin Concept of Miphun
A Collective Name of “Chin”

The tradition of ‘Chinlung’ as the origin of the “Chin” has been kept by all tribes of the Chin in various ways, such as folksongs, folklore and legends known as Tuanbia. For people with no writing system, a rich oral tradition consisting of folksong and folklore was the most reliable means of transmitting past events and collective memories through time. The songs were sung repeatedly during feasts and festivals, and the tales that made up Chin folklore were told and retold over the generations. In this way, such collective memories as the origin myth and the myth of common ancestors were handed down. Different tribes and groups of Chin kept the tradition of ‘Chinlung’ in several versions; the Hmar group of the Mizo tribe, who now live in Mizoram State of India, which I refer in this study as West Chinram, have a traditional folk song:

Kan Seingna Sinlung [Chinlung] ram hmingthang
Ka nu ram ka pa ram ngai
Chawngzil ang Kokir thei changsien
Ka nu ram ka pa ngai.

In English it translates as: ‘Famous Sinlung [Chinlung] is my motherland and the home of my ancestors. It could be called back like chawngzil, the home of my ancestors’ (Chaterjee 1990: 328).

This folksong also describes that the Chins were driven out of their original homeland, called ‘Chinglung’. Another folksong, traditionally sung at the Khuahrum sacrificial ceremony and other important occasions, reads as follows:

My Chinland of old,
My grandfather’s land Himalei,
My grandfather’s way excels,
Chinlung’s way excels (Kipgen 1996: 36).

Modern scholars generally agree with the traditional account of the origin of the name ‘Chin’, that the word comes from ‘Chinlung’. Hrang Nawl, a prominent scholar and politician among the Chin, confirms that the term ‘Chin … come(s) from Ciinlung, Chhinlung or Tsinlung, the cave or the rock where, according to legend, the Chin people emerged into this world as humans’ (Vumson 1986: 3). Even Vumson could not dispute the tradition that the Chin ‘were originally from a cave called Chinnlung, which is given different locations by different clans’ (1986: 26).

In addition to individual scholars and researchers, many political and other organizations of the Chin accepted the Chinlung tradition not only as myth but as historical fact. The Paite National Council, formed by the Chin people of Manipur and Mizoram States, claimed Chinlung as the origin of the Chin people in a memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister of India. The memorandum stated, ‘The traditional memory claimed that their remote original place was a cave in China where, for fear of enemies, they hid themselves, which is interpreted in different dialects as “Sinlung” [Chinlung] in Hmar and Khul in Paite and others.’ [5] In this memorandum, they suggested that the Government of India take initiative to group all Chin people inhabiting the Indo-Burma border areas within one country as specified and justified for the safeguard of their economic, social and political rights.

The literal meaning of Chin-lung is ‘the cave or the hole of the Chin’, the same meaning as the Burmese word for Chindwin, as in ‘Chindwin River’, also ‘the hole of the Chin’ or ‘the river of the Chin’ (Lehman 1963: 20). However, the word Chin-lung can also be translated as ‘the cave or the hole where our people originally lived’ or ‘the place from which our ancestors originated’ (Z. Sakhong 1983: 7). Thus, the word Chin without the suffix lung is translated simply as ‘people’ or ‘a community of people’ (Lehman 1999: 92–97). A Chin scholar, Lian Uk, defines the term Chin as follows:

The Chin and several of its synonymous names generally means ‘People’ and the name Chinland is generally translated as ‘Our Land’ reflecting the strong fundamental relationship they maintain with their land (Lian Uk 1968: 2).

Similarly, Carey and Tuck, who were the first to bring the Chin under the system of British administration, defined the word Chin as ‘man or people’. They recorded that the term Chin is ‘the Burmese corruption of the Chinese “Jin” or “Jen” meaning “man or people”’ (Carey and Tuck 1896: 3).

Evidently, the word ‘Chin’ had been used from the very beginning not only by the Chin themselves but also by neighboring peoples, such as the Kachin, Shan and Burman, to denote the people who occupied the valley of the Chindwin River. While the Kachin and Shan still called the Chin as ‘Khyan’ or ‘Khiang’ or ‘Chiang’, the Burmese usage seems to have changed dramatically from ‘Khyan’ (c†if;) to ‘Chin’ (csif;). [6] In stone inscriptions, erected by King Kyanzittha (1084–1113), the name Chin is spelled as ‘Khyan’ ( c†if; ) (Luce 1959: 75–109). These stone inscriptions are the strongest evidence indicating that the name Chin was in use before the eleventh century.

Prior to British annexation in 1896, at least seventeen written records existed in English regarding research on what was then called the ‘Chin-Kuki linguistic people’. These early writings variously referred to what is now called and spelled ‘Chin’ as ‘Khyeng’, ‘Khang’, ‘Khlang’, ‘Khyang’, ‘Khyan’, ‘Kiayn’, ‘Chiang’, ‘Chi’en’, ‘Chien’, and so on. Father Sangermono, an early Western writer, to note the existence of the hill tribes of Chin in the western mountains of Burma, lived in Burma as a Catholic missionary from 1783 to 1796. His book The Burmese Empire, published in 1833 one hundred years after his death, spells the name Chin as ‘Chien’ and the Chin Hills as the ‘Chein Mountains’. He thus recorded:

To the east of Chein Mountain between 20’30’ and 21’30’ latitude is a petty nation called ‘Jo’ (Yaw). They are supposed to have been Chien, who in the progress of time, have become Burmanized, speaking their language, although corruptly, and adopting their customs. [7]

In Assam and Bengal, the Chin tribes – particularly the Zomi tribe who live close to that area – were known as ‘Kuki’. The term Kuki is Bengali word, meaning ‘hill-people or highlanders’, which was, as Reid described in 1893:

(O)riginally applied to the tribe or tribes occupying the tracks immediately to the south of Cachar. It is now employed in a comprehensive sense, to indicate those living to the west of the Kaladyne River, while to the west they are designated as Shendus. On the other hand, to anyone approaching them from Burma side, the Shendus would be known as Chiang, synonymous with Khyen, and pronounced as ‘Chin’ (Reid 1893: 238).

The designation of Kuki was seldom used by the Chin people themselves, not even by the Zomi tribe in what is now Manipur State of India, for whom the word is intended. Soppit, who was Assistant Commissioner of Burma and later Sub-Divisional Officer in the North Cacher Hills, Assam, remarked in 1893 in his study of Lushai-Kuki:

The designation of Kuki is never used by the tribes themselves, though many of them answer to it when addressed, knowing it to be the Bengali term for their people (Soppit 1893: 2).

Shakespear, an authority on the Chin, said in 1912 that:

The term Kuki has come to have a fairly definite meaning, and we now understand by it certain … clans, with well marked characteristics, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman stock. On the Chittagong border, the term is loosely applied to most of the inhabitants of the interior hills beyond the Chittagong Hills Tracks; in the Cachar it generally means some families of the Thado and Khuathlang clans, locally distinguished as new Kuki and old Kuki. Now-a-days, the term is hardly employed, having been superseded by Lushai in the Chin Hills, and generally on the Burma border all these clans are called Chin. These Kuki are more closely allied to the Chakmas, and the Lushai are more closely to their eastern neighbours who are known as Chin.

He concluded by writing:

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Kukis, Lushais and Chins are all of the same race (Shakespear 1912: 8).

In 1826, almost one hundred years before Shakespear published his book, Major Snodgrass, who contacted the Chin people from the Burma side, had already confirmed that Kukis and Lushai were of the Chin nation, but he spelled Chin as Kiayn. He also mentioned Chinram as ‘Independent Kiayn Country’ (Snodgrass 1827: 320, on map) in his The Burmese War, in which he detailed the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824–26. Sir Arthur Phayer still spelt Chindwin as ‘Khyendweng’ in his History of Burma, first published in 1883 (Phayer 1883: 7). It was in 1891 that the term ‘Chin’, to be written as ‘CHIN’, was first used by Major W.G. Hughes in his military report, and then by A.G.E. Newland in his book The Images of War (1894); the conventional spelling for the name became legalized as the official term by The Chin Hills Regulation in 1896.

The Myth of Common Descent

Traditional accounts of the origin of the Chin people have been obscured by myths and mythologies that together with symbols, values and other collective memories, are important elements of what Clifford Geertz called ‘primordial identities’, which so often define and differentiate the Chin as a distinctive people and nationality throughout history (Geertz 1973: 255–310). As noted already, one such myth handed down through generations describes how the Chin ‘came out of the bowels of the earth or a cave called Chin-lung or Cin-lung’ (Gangte 1993: 14). According to some it was located somewhere in China (Cf. Zawla 1976: 2), others claimed it to be in Tibet (Cf. Ginzathang 1973: 7) and some suggested that it must be somewhere in the Chindwin Valley since the literal meaning of Chindwin is ‘the cave or the hole of the Chin’ (Gangte 1993: 14). I shall come back to the debate on the location of ‘Chinlung’, but here I shall concentrate only on the traditional account of the origin of the Chin.

Almost all of the Chin tribes and clans have promulgated similar but slightly different versions of the myth, which brings the ancestors of the Chin out from the hole or the bowels of earth. The Ralte clan/group of the Mizo tribe, also known as the Lushai, who now live in Mizoram State in India, have a tradition now generally known as ‘Chinlung tradition’ that brings their progenitors from the bowels of the earth. The story was translated into English and recorded by Lt Col J. Shakespear in 1912 as follows:

[Once upon a time when the great darkness called Thimzing fell upon the world,] many awful things happened. Everything except the skulls of animals killed in the chase became alive, dry wood revived, even stones become alive and produced leaves, so men had nothing to burn. The successful hunters who had accumulated large stocks of trophies of their skill were able to live using them as fuel. After this terrible catastrophe, Thimzing, the world was again re-peopled by men and women issuing from the hole of the earth called ‘Chhinlung’ (1912: 93–94).

Shakespear described another similar story:

The place whence all people sprang is called ‘Chinglung’. All the clans came out of that place. The two Ralte came out together, and began at once chattering, and this made Pathian [The Supreme God] think there were too many men, and so he shut down the stone (1912: 94).

Another similar story of the origin of the Chin, also connected with the “Chinlung tradition” as handed down among the Mara group of the Laimi tribe – also known as the Lakher – was recorded by N. E. Parry in 1932:

Long ago, before the great darkness called Khazanghra fell upon the world, men all came out of the hole below the earth. As the founder of each Mara group came out of the earth he call his name. Tlongsai called out, ‘I am Tlongsai’; Zeuhnang called out, ‘I am Zeuhnang’; Hawthai called out, ‘I am Hawthai’; Sabeu called out, ‘I am Sabeu’; Heima called out, ‘I am Heima.’ Accordingly God thought that a very large number of Mara had come out and stopped the way. When the Lushai came out of the hole, however, only the first one to come out called out, ‘I am Lushai’, and all the rest came out silently. God, only hearing one man announce his arrival, thought that only one Lushai had come out, and gave them a much longer time, during which Lushais were pouring out of the hole silently in great numbers. It is for this reason that Lushais to this day are more numerous than Maras. After all men had come out of the hole in the earth God made their languages different, and they remain so to this day (Parry 1932: 4).

All sources of Chin traditions maintain that their ancestors originated from ‘Chinlung’ or ‘Cin-lung’. Sometimes the name for ‘Chinlung’ or ‘Cin-lung’ differs, depending on the specific Chin dialect – such as Khul, Khur and Lung-kua, – but it always means ‘cave’ or ‘hole’ no matter what the dialect. The reason Chin-lung was abandoned, however, varies from one source to another. Depending on the dialect and local traditions, some said that Chin-lung was abandoned as a result of an adventure, or because of the great darkness called Khazanghra, Thimzing or Chunmui. In contrast to the stories above, some traditions maintain that their original settlement was destroyed by a flood. The Laimi tribe from the Haka and Thlantlang areas had a very well-known myth called Ngun Nu Tuanbia, which related the destruction of human life on Earth by the flood. The Zophei also had their own version of the story about the flood, called Tuirang-aa-pia (literal meaning: ‘white water/river is pouring out or gushing’), which destroyed their original settlement. The story goes as follows:

Once upon a time, all the humankind in this world lived together in one village. In the middle of the village there was a huge stone, and underneath the stone was a cave that in turn was connected with the endless sea of water called Tipi-thuam-thum. In this cave dwelt a very large snake called Pari-bui or Limpi, which seized one of the village children every night and ate them. The villagers were in despair at the depredations committed by the snake, so they made a strong hook, tied it on the rope, impaled a dog on the hook and threw it to the snake, which swallowed the dog and with it the fish hook. The villagers then tried to pull out the snake, but with all their efforts they could not do so, and only succeeded in pulling out enough of the snake to go five times round the rock at the mouth of the hole, and then, as they could not pull out any more of the snake, they cut off the part that they pulled out, and the snake’s tail and the rest of the body fell back into the deep cave with a fearful noise. From that night water came pouring out of the snake’s hole and covered the whole village and destroyed the original settlement of mankind. Since then people were scattered to every corner of the world and began to speak different languages. And, it was this flood, which drove the ancestors of the Chin proper to take refuge in the Chin Hills (Ceu Mang 1981: 12–19).

Many Chin tribes called the Chindwin River the ‘White River’, Tui-rang, Tuikhang, Tirang, Tuipui-ia, etc; all have the same meaning but differ only in dialect term. Thus modern historians, not least Hutton, Sing Kho Khai and Gangte, believe that the traditional account of the flood story, which destroyed the Chin’s original settlement, might be the flood of the Chindwin River. They therefore claim that the Chin’s original settlement was in the Chindwin Valley and nowhere else.

The Chin Concept of Ram

For the Chin, Miphun cannot exist without Ram. They therefore define themselves as a Miphun with a strong reference to Ram – the original homeland, a particular locus and territory, which they all collectively claim to be their own. At the same time, they identify members of a community as ‘being from the same original homeland’ (A. Smith 1986: 29). The inner link between the concepts of Miphun and Ram was strengthened in Chin society through the worship of Khua-hrum at the Tual ground. As Anthony Smith convincingly argues, ‘Each homeland possesses a center or centers that are deemed to be “sacred” in a religio-ethnic sense’. In Chin society, the Tual grounds, the site of where they worshipped the guardian god Khuahrum, were the sacred centers, which stood as protectors of both men and land.

For the Chin, the concept of Ram, or what Anthony Smith calls the ‘ethnic homeland’, refers not only to the territory in which they are residing, i.e. present Chinram, but also the ‘original homeland’ where their ancestors once lived as a people and a community. What matters most in terms of their association with the original homeland is that ‘it has a symbolic geographical center, a sacred habitat, a “homeland”, to which the people may symbolically return, even when its members are scattered … and have lost their [physical] homeland centuries ago’ (ibid.: 28). Ethnicity does not cease to exist simply because the Chin were expelled from their original homeland, or because they are artificially divided between different countries, ‘for ethnicity is a matter of myths, memories, values and symbols, and not material possessions or political powers, both of which require a habitat for their realization’ (ibid.). Thus the Chin concept of Ram as ‘territory’ and ‘original homeland’ are relevant to Miphun. The relevance of the ‘original homeland’ is:

Not only because it is actually possessed, but also because of an alleged and felt symbiosis between a certain piece of earth and ‘its’ community. Again, poetic and symbolic qualities possess greater potency than everyday attributes; a land of dream is far more significant than any actual terrain (ibid.: 28).

I shall therefore trace the history of the Chin’s settlements, not only in present Chinram but also in their original ‘homeland’ in the Chindwin Valley, in the following sections.

Migration Patterns

Chin tradition maintains that the ancestors of the Chin people originated from a cave called ‘Chinlung’, but in the absence of written documents, it is difficult to locate the exact site of ‘Chinlung’. Scholars and researchers therefore give various opinions as to its location.

K. Zawla, a Mizo historian from the Indian side of Chinram, or West Chinram, suggests that the location of Chinlung might be somewhere in modern China, and the ‘Ralte group [of the Mizo tribe] were probably one of the first groups to depart from Chhinlung’ (Zawla 1976: 2). Here, Zawla quoted Shakespeare and accepted the Chin legend as historical fact. He also claimed that the Chin came out of Chinlung in about 225 B.C., during the reign of Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang, whose cruelty was then at its height during construction of the Great Wall. Zawla relates the story of the Ch’in ruling dynasty in Chinese history in a fascinating manner. He uses local legends known as Tuanbia (literally: ‘stories or events from the old-days’) and many stories which are recorded by early travelers and British administrators in Chinram, as well as modern historical research on ancient China. Naturally, this kind of compound story-telling has little or no value in a historical sense, but is nevertheless important in terms of socially reconstructing collective memories as identity-creating-resources.

Other theories have been advanced in this connection, more noticeably by Sing Kho Khai (1984) and Chawn Kio (1993). Both believe that the Chin ancestors are either the Ch’ing or Ch’iang in Chinese history, which are ‘old generic designations for the non-Chinese tribes of the Kansu-Tibetan frontier, and indicate the Ch’iang as a shepherd people, the Ch’ing as a jungle people’ (Sing Kho Khai 1984: 53). Thus, according to Chinese history, both the Ch’iang and Ch’ing were regarded as ‘barbarian tribes’ (Cited in Sing Kho Khai 1984: 21). Gin Za Tuang – in a slightly different manner than Zawla, Sing Kho Khai and Chawn Kio – claims that the location of ‘Chinlung’ was believed to be in Tibet (Cf. Ginzathang 1973: 5; Sing Kho Khai 1984: 10; Gangte 1993: 14). Gin Za Tuang, nevertheless, maintains that the Chin ancestors were Ch’iang, but he mentions nothing about the Ch’ing.

Gin Za Thang simply follows Than Tun’s and G. H. Luce’s theory of the origin of Tibeto-Burmans and other groups of humans, believed to be the ancestors of the Southeast Asian peoples. According to Professors Than Tun and Gordon Luce, [8] the Ch’iang were not just the ancestors of the Chin but of the entire Tibeto-Burman group, and they ‘enjoyed a civilization as advanced as the Chinese, who disturbed them so much that they moved south’ (Than Tun 1988: 3). Regarding this, Professor Gordon Luce says:

With the expansion of China, the Ch’iang had either the choice to be absorbed or to become nomads in the wilds. It was a hard choice, between liberty and civilization. Your ancestors chose liberty; and they must have gallantly maintained it. But the cost was heavy. It cost them 2000 years of progress. If the Ch’iang of 3000 BC were equals of the Chinese civilization, the Burmans [and the Chin] of 700 AD were not nearly as advanced as the Chinese in 1300 BC (Cited in Than Tun 1988: 4).

Before they moved to the wilderness along the edges of western China and eastern Tibet, the ancient homelands of Ch’iang and all other Tibeto-Burman groups, according to Enriquez, lay somewhere in the northwest, possibly in Kansu, between the Gobi and northwestern Tibet (Eriquez 1932: 7–8). It is now generally believed that the Tibeto-Burman group and other Mongoloid stock who now occupy Southeast Asia and Northeast India, migrated in three waves in the following chronological order:

The Mon-Khmer (Talaing, Palaung, En Raing, Pa-o, Khasi, Annimite.)
The Tibeto-Burman (Pyu, Kanzan, Thet, Burman, Chin, Kachin, Naga, Lolo.)
The Tai-Chinese (Shan, Saimese, Karen.)

The Tibeto-Burman group initially moved toward the west and thereafter subdivided themselves into several groups. They follow different routes, one group reaching northern Tibet, where some stayed behind, while others moved on until they reached Burma in three waves. These people were:
The Chin-Kachin-Naga group
The Burman and Old-Burman (Pyu, Kanzan, Thet) group
The Lolo group (Enriquez 1932: 8).

This migration pattern theory, as mentioned above, has mainly been adopted by historians like Than Tun and Gordon Luce. However, anthropologists like Edmund Leach believe that ‘the hypothesis that the Southeast Asian peoples as known today immigrated from the region of China is a pure myth’ (Lehman 1963: 22). The main difference between the historical approach and the anthropological approach is that while historians begin their historical reconstruction with the origins and immigration of the ancestors, anthropologists start with ‘the development within the general region of Burma of symbiotic socio-cultural systems: civilizations and hill societies’ (ibid.: 22). However, both historians and anthropologists agree – as historical linguistics, archaeology and racial relationships definitely indicate – that the ancestors of these various peoples did indeed come from the north. But, anthropologists maintain their argument by saying that, ‘they did not come as the social and cultural units we know today and cannot be identified with any particular groups of today’ (ibid.: 23). Their main thesis is that the hill people and plain’s people are now defined by their mutual relationships in present sites, because, for anthropologists, ethnicity was constructed within the realm of social interaction between neighbouring reference groups.

The anthropological approach could be very helpful, especially when we investigate the pre-historical context of the Chin people, with no written documents existing. Thus, based on ethnic and linguistic differentiation, not on written documents, Lehman demonstrated that ‘the ancestors of the Chin and the Burman must have been distinct from each other even before they first appeared in Burma’. And he continues:

Undoubtedly, these various ancestral groups were descended in part from groups immigrating into present Burma, starting about the beginning of the Christian era. But it is also probable that some of these groups were in Burma in the remote past, long before a date indicated by any present historical evidence. We are not justified, however, in attaching more than linguistic significance to the terms ‘Chin’ and ‘Burman’ at such dates.

And he concludes, by saying:

Chin history begins after A.D. 750, with the development of Burman civilization and Chin interaction with it (ibid.: 22).

Chin anthropologists like T. S. Gangte seem eager to agree with Leach and Lehman. Like Leach and Lehman, Gangte rejects hypothetical theories proposed by Zawla and Gin Za Tuang, who locate ‘Chinlung’ somewhere in China and Tibet, respectively, as myths. ‘In the absence of any written corroboration or the existence of historical evidence to support them,’ he said, ‘such hypothetical theories are considered highly subjective and conjectural. They are, therefore, taken with a pinch of salt. They remain only as legends’ (Gangte 1993: 17). He nevertheless accepted the ‘Chinlung’ tradition as the origin of the Chin and even claims that the Chindwin Valley is where Chin history begins. Similar to Gangte, the ‘Khuangsai source of Chin tradition mentions that the location of Chin-lung was somewhere in the Chindwin area’ (Sing Kho Khai 1984: 10).

The Chin’s Homeland of Chindwin

Professor Than Tun claims that Tibeto-Burman groups of the Burman came down into present Burma via the Salween and Nmai’kha Valleys, and reached the northern Shan State before AD 713. But before they were able to settle themselves in the delta area of the Irrawaddy Valley, ‘the rise of Nanchao checked their movements soon after 713’ (Than Tun 1988: 3). The Nanchao made continuous war with neighbouring powers such as the Pyu who had founded the Halin Kingdom in central Burma. In 835 the Nanchao plundered the delta areas of Burma, and in 863 they went further east to Hanoi. However, by the end of the ninth century the Nanchao power collapsed because, according to Than Tun, they had exhausted themselves. Only after the collapse of the Nanchao were the Burman able to move further South into the plains of Burma.

The Chin, according to Professor Luce, descended from ‘western China and eastern Tibet into the South via the Hukong Valley’ (1959 (b): 75–109), a completely different route than the Burman had taken. Thus Lehman’s theory is quite convincing that the ancestors of the Chin and the Burman were distinct from each other even when they first appeared in Burma. There is ample evidence that the Chin were the first to settle in the Chindwin Valley. The Pagan inscriptions dating from the eleventh century onward refer to the Chin of the Chindwin Valley. There is also persistent reference in the legends of almost all the Chin tribes to a former home in the Chindwin Valley. Chin myths uniformly refer to the ruling lineage when speaking of the original homeland in the valley (Cf. Lal Thang Lian 1976: 9). Archeological evidence supports this interpretation. [9] Sing Kho Khai therefore claims that:

The literal meaning of the name ‘Chindwin’ definitely suggests that the Chindwin area was primarily inhabited by a tribe called the Chin (1984: 36).

Vumson goes even further by saying:

When the Burman descended to the plains of central Burma, during the ninth century, they [the Chin people] were already in the Chindwin Valley (1986: 35).

Concerning historical evidence of the Chin settlement in the Chindwin Valley, reliable sources come from the Burman inscriptions erected by King Kyanzzittha and other kings during the peak of the Pagan dynasty. According to Professor Luce, an expert on Pagan inscription, ‘Chins and Chindwin (‘Hole of the Chins’) are mentioned in Pagan inscriptions from the thirteenth century’ (Luce 1959 (a): 19–31). The earliest Pagan inscriptions put the Burman in upper Burma in roughly the middle of the ninth century. Professor Luce suggested that the Chin settlement in the Chindwin Valley began in the middle of the eighth century, while allowing for the possibility of a date as far back as the fourth century. Lal Thang Lian, a Mizo historian, also gives the eighth century as the possible date for Chin settlement in the Chindwin Valley (Cf. 1976: 71).

Before the Chin settled in the Chindwin Valley, kingdoms of the Mon and the Pye existed in the major river valley of Burma, Sak or Thet and Kandu in Upper Burma, and also the Shan in the eastern country, but no one occupied the Chindwin Valley until the Chin made their home there. The Burman fought against the other occupants of the area, such as Thet, Mon and Pyu, but they did not fight the Chin. G. H. Luce writes;

The Pagan Burman had wars with the Thets (Sak), the Kandu (Kantú), the Mons, the Shans and the Wa-Palaungs, but he called the Chins ‘friends’. Moreover, while he pushed far up the Yaw, the Mu and the Irrawaddy, he apparently did not go up the Chindwin. I cannot identify any old place of the Chindwin much further north than Monywa. From all this I infer that in the Pagan period the home of the Chin was mainly in the Chindwin Valley above Monyaw (1959 (a): 21).

In his major work, ‘Old Kyakse and the Coming of the Burmans’, Professor Luce also mentioned the Chin settlement in Chindwin and their relation with the Burman as follows:

If the Chins had joined the Thet peoples in opposing the Burmans, the latter’s conquest of the central plains might have been precarious. But the Thets probably hated the Chins, whose descent from the Hukong Valley had cut off their western tribes in Manipur, and overwhelmed their tenure of Chindwin. Burman strategy here was to conciliate the Chins. They advanced up the Lower Chindwin only as far as Monywa and Alone, called the Chins Khyan, ‘friends’, and seem to have agreed to leave them free to occupy the whole Upper Chindwin Valley. There is no mention of any fighting between the Chins and the Burmans; and whereas the Pagan Burmans soon occupied the M’u Valley at least as far as Mliytú (Myedu) and the Khaksan, Yaw and Krow Valleys as far as the Púnton (Póndaung) Range and perhaps Thilin, I know of no place up the Chindwin much beyond Munrwa (Monywa) and the Panklí 10 tuik (ten ‘taik’ of Bagyi), mentioned in Old Burmese (1959 (b): 89).

Based on the Burman inscriptions of the Pagan Kingdom, which refer to the Chin as comrades and allies in the Chindwin Valley, Prof. G. Luce even suggested that the word ‘Chin’ might come from the Burmese word Thu-nge-chin ‘friend’. But this is very unlikely, because the word ‘Chin’ had already been well recognized by the Burman and other peoples, such as Kachin and Shan, even before the Chin made their settlement in the Chindwin Valley. The Kachin, for instance, who never came down to the Chindwin Valley but remained in the upper Hukong Valley and present Kachin Hills, called the Chin Khiang or Chiang. So did the Shan. Thus, it is obvious that the term ‘Chin’ had been used to denote the Chin people long before the Chindwin Valley became their homeland. And the term Chindwin comes from ‘Chin’, as in ‘the hole of the Chin’ or ‘the river of the Chin’, but not the other way around.
Collective Memories of Chindwin

Over the course of time, the Chin people moved up from the eastern bank of the Chindwin River to the Upper Chindwin of the Kale Valley. Although we do not know exactly when and why, the date can be set approximately to the final years of the thirteenth century or beginning of the fourteenth century. Until the fall of the Pagan dynasty in 1295, the Pagan inscriptions continuously mentioned that the Chins were in between the eastern bank of the Upper Chindwin and west of the Irrawaddy River. Thus, it can be assumed that the Chin settlement in the Kale Valley began just before the end of the thirteenth century. The reason is equally unknown. Perhaps a flood destroyed their settlement as oral traditions remembered it; or as Luce has suggested, ‘the Chin were left to themselves in Upper Chindwin’ (Luce 1959 (b): 89). As far as linguistic evidence is concerned, traditional accounts of the flood story seem more reasonable than Professor Luce’s suggestion. The traditional Chin account from the Zophei group of the Laimi tribe has recounted that the flood from the low valley had driven their ancestors to the mountains on other side of the river, in Chin: Khatlei, Khalei or Khale. It is believed that the root word of Kale is Khalei, and the meaning is ‘other side of the river.’ [10]

After their original settlement in the Chindwin Valley was destroyed by the flood, according to the traditional account, the Chin moved to the Upper Chindwin, and some groups such as the Asho went as far as the Pandaung Hills and other hills near the western part of the Chindwin River. Since then the Chin have been broken into different tribes speaking different dialects. Many myths and legends exist to explain why they broke into distinct tribes and speak different dialects. One such story is recorded by B. S. Carey and N. N. Tuck:

They (the Chin) became very powerful and finding no more enemies on earth, they proposed to pass their time capturing the Sun. They therefore set about a sort of Jacob’s ladder with poles, and gradually mounted them higher and higher from the earth and nearer to their goal, the Sun. However, the work became tedious; they quarreled among themselves, and one day, when half of the people were climbing high up on the pole, all eager to seize the Sun, the other half below cut it down. It fell down northwards, dashing the people beyond the Run River on the Kale border and the present site of Torrzam. These people were not damaged by the fall, but suddenly struck with confusion of tongues, they were unable to communicate with each other and did not know the way home again. Thus, they broke into distinct tribes and spoke different languages (Carey and Tuck 1986: 146).

Another story from the Zophei area, also known as the “Leather Book”, relates not only the story of the Chins being broken up into distinct tribes but also how their written language came into being:

In the beginning, when the stones were soft, all mankind spoke the same language, and there was no war on earth. But just before the darkness called Chun-mui came to the earth, God gave different languages to different peoples and instructed them to write on something else. While the Chin ancestors carefully inscribed their language on leather, the Burman ancestors, who were very lazy, wrote their language on stone, which was soft. However, soon after they had made the inscription of their languages, the ‘darkness’ came and the Sun disappeared from the earth. During the ‘darkness’ the stone became hard but the leather got wet. Before the Sun came back to the earth, and while the wet leather was still very smelly, a hungry dog ate up the leather, and in this way, the Chin ancestors lost their written language.
When the Sun came back to the earth, the Chin ancestors realized that while they had lost their written language, the Burman language which was written on the stone had turned into ‘the magic of letters’. Moreover, while the sons of Burman spoke the same language, the sons of Chin spoke different dialects because their common language was eaten up together with the leather by the hungry dog. Thus, the ancestor of the Chin prepared to make war against the Burman in order to capture ‘the magic of letters’. Although the Burmans were weaker and lazier, the Chin did not win the war because ‘the magic of letters’ united all the sons of the Burman. Since the sons of Chin spoke different dialects, their fathers could not even give them the war order to fight the Burman. It was for this reason that the Chin broke into distinct tribes and speak different dialects (Pu Sakhong 1969: 11–12).

Another story connected with the ‘magic of letters’ comes from the tradition of the Mizo tribe, which was recorded by Shakespear in 1912. According to Mizo tradition, God gave mankind not only different languages but different talents as well: ‘to the ancestor of the Poi [Laimi] tribe he gave a fighting sword, while the ancestor of the Lushai tribe only received a cloth, which is the reason that the Poi tribes are braver than the Lushais’ (Shakespaer 1912: 95). In contrast to the Zophei tradition, the Mizo story tells that ‘the magic of letters’ was given to the white man, not to the Burman. Shakespeare therefore concludes by saying that ‘I was told he (the white man) had received the knowledge of reading and writing – a curious instance of the pen being considered mightier than the sword’ (1912: 95).
From the Chindwin Valley to Present Chinram

Historical evidence indicates the Chin lived peacefully in Upper Chindwin of the Kale-Kabaw Valley for at least a hundred years, from the fall of Pagan in 1295 to the founding of the Shan’s Fortress City of Kale-myo in 1395. There is no historical evidence that, between those periods, the Chin’s life in the Kale Valley was disturbed either by natural disaster or by political events. During that period, the Chin founded their capital at Khampat in the Kabaw Valley. Lal Thang Lian, a Mizo historian, and M. Kipgen, a Zomi historian, both claim that the Khampat era was ‘the most glorious period’ in Chin history. ‘Most of the major clans, who now inhabit the Chin State of Burma, Mizoram, Manipur, Cachar and Tripura, are believed to have lived together there under a great chief having the same culture and speaking the same language’ (Kipgen 1996: 39).

But in 1395 when ‘the Shan built the great city of Kalemyo with double walls’ at the foot of what is now called the Chin Hills, twenty miles west of the Chindwin River, a century of peaceful life in the Kale Valley came to an end (Luce 1959 (a): 26–27). The Shan had become the rising power in the region of what is now called ‘Upper Chindwin’ and ‘Central Burma’ by the middle of the thirteenth century. Before they conquered the Chin country of the Kale Valley, the Shan had already dominated the regions by conquering the then most powerful kingdom of Pagan in 1295. They continued to fight among themselves and with the Burman kingdom of Ava, which was founded after the fall of Pagan by King Thadominphya in 1364. The Shan finally conquered Ava in 1529. Although Ava was recaptured by the Burman King Bayinnaung in 1555, the Kale Valley remained under the rule of Shan until the British period. In the century after they had conquered the Chin country of the Kale Valley, the Shan also annexed Assam and established the Ahong dynasty, which lasted for more than two centuries.

According to Sing Kho Khai and Lal Thang Lian, the Chin did not leave the Kale Valley after the Shan conquest. The Chin traditions of the Zomi and Mizo tribes, which were accepted as historical facts by Sing Kho Khai (1984) and Lal Thang Lian (1976), mentioned that the Chins lived in the Kale Valley side by side with the Shan for a certain period. Zomi tradition, as noted by Sing Kho Khai, goes on to relate that ‘while they were living in the Kale Valley, a prince came up from below and governed the town of Kale-myo. During the reign of that prince the people were forced to work very hard in the construction of the fortress and double walls of the town’ (Sing Kho Khai 1984: 43). The hardship of the forced labor was said to be so great, according to Naylor, that ‘the fingers of workers, which were accidentally cut-off, filled a big basket’ (Naylor 1937: 3). The tradition continues to relate that the Chins, unable to bear the hardship of manual labour, moved up to the hills region to establish such a new settlement as ‘Chin New’, which was located in the present township of Tiddim of the Chin State in Burma (Carey and Tuck 1986: 127). Historian D. G. E. Hall confirms that the Shans ‘drove the Chin out of the Chindwin Valley into the western hills’ of present Chinram (Hall 1968: 158).

According to a legend, which Lal Thang Lian accepted as historical fact, the Chin planted a banyan sapling at the site of an altar where they used to worship their Khua-hrum,   [11]  just before they were forced to abandon Khampat. They took a pledge at the sacrificial ceremony to their Khua-hrum that ‘they would return to Khampat, their permanent home, when the sapling had grown into a tree and when its spreading branches touched the earth’ (Kipgen 1996: 40–41).  [12]

We do not know exactly when the Chin left Khampat and the Kale-Kabaw Valley to settle in the hilly region of Chinram. But we can trace the periods, approximately, from the Shan and the Burma chronicles from the east and the Manipur chronicles from the west. The Manipur chronicles first mentioned the Chin people, known to them as Kuki, in 1554 (Cf. Shakespear 1955: 94–111; Lehman 1963: 25). It is therefore certain that the Chin settlement in present Chinram began only after the founding of Kale-myo in 1395, and reached the furthest northern region of their settlement in present Manipur State of India in about 1554.

According to Sing Kho Khai, the first settlement made in present Chinram was called ‘Chin Nwe’, or ‘Cinnuai’ as he spelt it. Carey and Tuck, however, spelt ‘Chin Nwe’(1896: 127). The Chins lived together in ‘Chin Nwe’ for a certain period. But they split into tribal groups because of ‘their struggle against each other for political supremacy’ (Sing Kho Khai 1984: 41). Economics may have been the compelling reason, because ‘Chin Nwe’, a rather small, hilly region, could not provide enough land for the self-sufficient agriculturally-oriented economic system of peasant society. Thus, one group made their new settlement in ‘Lai-lung’, located in the present township of Falam, and eventually became the ‘Laimi tribe’ (Z. Sakhong 1983: 5). Another group who first settled in ‘Locom’ eventually became the Mizo tribe who now populate part of Mizoram State in India. From ‘Chin Nwe’ some groups moved up to the north, and they are now known as ‘Zomi’, meaning northern people, or highlanders. Prior to these settlements, there is no historical evidence that differentiates the Chin into the Liami, Mizo and Zomi tribes, etc. Only the national name of ‘Chin’ is represented in the records. Until that time, there were no such tribal names as Asho, Chó, Khuami, Laimi, Mizo and Zomi. B. S. Carey, who knew very well the Biblical story of the fall of mankind, [13] described ‘Chin Nwe’ as ‘the Chin Garden of Eden’, which indicated ‘before the fall came upon the Chin people’, to use the symbolic term (Carey and Tuck 1896: 127).

Some Chin tribes, however, did not move to the hills but remained in the Chindwin Valley, especially in remote areas like the Gankaw Valley and the Kale-Kabaw Valley of Upper Chindwin. They are still called today by their original name but with suffixes like Chin-pun, Chin-me, etc., because of their old-fashioned tattooed faces. Asho groups, as mentioned earlier, split away from the main groups even before they moved to Upper Chindwin. They first lived in the Pandaung Hills and then scattered around the Irrawaddy Delta, Pegu Yoma, Arakan Yoma; some of the Asho tribe even reached the Chittagong Hill Tracks in what is now Bangladesh (Lian Uk 1968: 7). In Arakan and Chittagong they are still known by their old name, ‘Khyeng’.
The Chin Split into Tribal Groups and Tual Communities

Historical evidence shows that the Chin were known by no other name than CHIN until they made their settlement in ‘Chin Nwe’. However, after they were expelled from their original homeland, the Kale Valley in Upper Chindwin, by the flood as oral traditions recounts – or conquered by the Shan as modern scholars have suggested – the Chin split into different tribal groups speaking different dialects, with different tribal names.

Undoubtedly, a vast majority of the Chin people moved over to the hill regions of present Chin State in Burma, Mizoram and Manipur States in India, and the Chittagong Hill Tracks in Bangladesh. But some groups, as mentioned, remained in their original homeland of the Chindwin Valley and later scattered into such areas as the Sagaing, Maqwi, Pakukko and Irrawaddy divisions of present Burma.

Linguistically, according to the 1904 Linguistic Survey of India, the Chin dialects are divided into four major groups: Northern, Central, Old Kuki and Southern.
1. The Northern Group: Thado, Kamhau, Sokte (Sukte), Siyin (Sizang), Ralte, Paite.
2. The Central Group: Tashon (Tlaisun), Lai, Lakher (Mara), Lushai (Mizo), Bangjogi (Bawmzo), Pankhu.
The Old-Kuki Group: Rangkhol, Kolren, Kom, Purum, Hmar, Cha (Chakma).
The Southern Group: Chin-me, Chin-bok, Chin-pun, Khyang (Asho), M’ro (Khuami), Shendus (Yindu), and Welaung (Grierson 1904: 67).

Scholars generally agree that there are six major tribal groups of the Chin, namely the 1) Asho, 2) Chó or Sho, 3) Khuami or M’ro, 4) Laimi, 5) Mizo (Lushai) and 6) Zomi (Vumson 1986: 40).

For the Chin, the term ‘tribal group’ is a social group comprising numerous families, clans or generations together with slaves, dependents or adopted strangers. In other words, it is a group of the same people whose ancestors made their settlement in a certain place together, after their common original homeland in the Kale Valley was destroyed. The Laimi tribe, for instance, is made up of the descendents of the group who made their settlement at Lai-lung, after being forced to leave the Kale Valley. Thus, the term ‘tribe’ as a Chin concept does not refer to common ancestors or common family ties but to a social group of the same ethnic nationality, who settled in a certain place. As the names imply, the tribal groups among the Chin rather denote geographical areas and the ownership of the land; for example, Asho means the plain dwellers, Cho means southerners, Khuami may be translated as ‘the native people’, Laimi means descendent of the Lai-lung or the ‘central people’, as Stevenson (1943) defines it, Zomi or Mizo means the northern people, and so on. The tribal group therefore is not a divisive term, it only denotes how the Chin are split into various groups, having lost their original homeland of Chindwin.

In the course of time, different tribal groups gradually developed their own tribal dialects and identities, which in turn were integrated through the ritual systems of Khua-hrum worship. Because of difficulties in communication between the different groups, different local dialects and customs gradually developed. This level of group can be called a sub-tribal group, or Tual community in Chin. The Tual community was usually begun by the same family or clan, settling in the same village. However, as the community became larger and newcomers increased, they would also establish satellite settlements and villages, although they all shared the principle Tual village when they worshiped their guardian god, called Khua-hrum. I shall discuss further details of the nature of the Tual community in the next chapter. This kind of sub-tribal group, or Tual community, was usually ruled by a single chief or the patriarch of the clan and his descendents. The Lautu group of the Laimi tribe, for instance, was ruled by the Lian Chin clan, who worshiped the Bawinu River as their guardian Khua-hrum. The entire community of Lautu – some fifteen villages – shared the Tual of their principle village Hnaring. Likewise, the Zophei group of the Laimi tribe, with more than twenty villages shared the Tual worship of their principal village Leitak, and so on.

The significance of different Tual communities is that although they developed their own local spoken dialect, they all used the same ‘mother tongue’ tribal dialect when composing a song or epic. To give an example, among the Laimi tribe there are several sub-tribal groups, such as the Zophei, Senthang, Lautu, etc. All these groups have their own local spoken dialects; some are quite different from the main Lai dialect. But when they composed traditional songs and epics, called Hla-do, Hla-pi and others, they all used their mother dialect, the Lai dialect, and sang in it. However, because of communication difficulties, feelings of close kinship between tribal groups were no longer strong, sometimes replaced by Tual community-oriented sub-tribal group or clan identities. Because of this, the British administrators adopted the Tual community of sub-tribal groups as the basic structure for what they called the ‘Circle Administration’.

Concluding Remarks

Prior to British annexation in 1896, the Chins were independent people ruled by their own traditional tribal and local chiefs called Ram-uk and Khua-bawi, respectively. Surrounding kingdoms like Burman or Myanmar, Bengal and Assam (India) never conquered the Chin people and their land, Chinram. As a result, Buddhism, Muslim and Hinduism never reached the Chin. The Chin traditional religion was the only social manifestation of people’s faith, which bound the community together. Although all the tribes and villages followed the same pattern of belief systems, the ritual practices in traditional Chin religion—called Khua-hrum worship—were very much mutually exclusive, and could not serve to unite the entire Chin people under a single religious institution. Thus, until the British occupation, the Chin society remained in a tribal society and the people’s identification with each other was tribally exclusive, and their common national identity remained to be searched.

By the turn of twentieth century, however, Chin society was abruptly transformed by powerful outside forces of change. The British conquered Chinram, and the Christian missionaries followed the colonial powers and converted the people. Within this process of change, the Chin people found themselves in the midst of multi-ethnic and multi-religious environments, which they did not welcome. They also realized that their country was not the central of the universe but a very small part of a very big British Empire. After the colonial period, they found themselves again being separated into three different countries—India, Burma, and Bangladesh—without their consent. While West Chinram of present Mizoram State became part of India, East Chinram of present Chin State joined the Union of Burma according to the Panglong Agreement signed in 1947. The smaller part of Chinram became part of what they then called East Pakistan, that is, present Bangladesh.

Primary agent of change, as I have argued elsewhere, [14] was modern political systems represented by British colonial power and its successors—namely, independent India and Burma. The political development, of course, was the only agent with necessary power to force change. In tribal society, ‘distinction cannot easily be made between religious, social, cultural and political elements’ (Downs 1994: 4). Anything that effects one aspect of life can strongly affect every aspect of life. In fact, ‘tribal society can only be maintained through traditional instruments of integration, if they remain in fundamental isolation from other societies’ (ibid.). When centuries-old isolationism in Chinram was broken up by the British colonial power, the traditional way of maintaining the tribal group’s identity was no longer effective, and the process of de-tribalization had begun.

The process of de-tribalization could be a dangerous moment because that process could either become what Frederick Downs called the process of “dehumanization,” or a process of what Swedish scholar Eric Ringmar called a “formative moment”(1995: 145). If the process became a process of dehumanization, that is, ‘to rob them of their essential life of the people’s soul’, as Down puts it, then the existence of tribal peoples could really be endanger. There are many examples, according to Dawns, in the Americas, Africa, other parts of Asia and India where many tribal peoples extinct to exist.  On the other hand, the process of de-tribalization could become a “formative moment” if the people could find any other alternative, instead of seeking ‘to revitalize the old culture’ (Downs 1994: 24).

The process of de-tribalization in Chin society became a process of “formative moment”, that is—at a time in which new meaning became available and people suddenly were able to identify themselves with something meaningful. It was Christianity, which provided the Chin people the new meanings and symbols within this process of “formative moment”, but without ‘a complete break with the past’ (ibid.). Christianity indeed helped the Chin people—no longer as a divided tribal groups, but as the entire nationality of Chin ethnicity—to maintain their identity, and Christianity itself became a new creating-force of national identity for the Chin people within this “formative” process of powerful changes.

However, in order to understand this “formative” process of the Chin response to the new religious challenge and how did they become Christians, it is not enough to investigate purely institutional development of the Chin churches. It is important to see gradual shift from traditional Chin religion to Christianity as an integrating factor in the development of Chin self-awareness from the Chin local perspective, and then analyze how the local stories that people tell about their society and about the past, especially events personified in ancestors and other historic figures. Through such stories, both small and large, personal and collective, the Chin people do much of their “identity work” together. In other words, such ‘stories hold history and identity together’ (White 1995: 5).

The most prominent and frequently repeated local stories are, of course, about the moment of first confrontation with colonial power and the Christian mission, and subsequent conversion to Christianity. The stories of conversion are repeatedly told and retold, often in narrative accounts as writings, songs, sermons, and speeches passed on during such occasions as religious feasts, celebrations, and worship services. These are times when people engage in exchange practices that define social and political relations. Although the wars against British annexation (1872-1896), the Anglo-Chin War (1917-1919), the Second World War and Japanese invasion (1939-1945), and the Independence of Burma (1948) are also significant junctures in temporal consciousness, the events of Christian conversion are uniquely important in the organization of a socio-historical memory.

In present Chin society, telling dramatic versions of the conversion stories has become almost a ritual practice during Sunday worship services and the annual Local and Association meetings called Civui, where villages and communities commonly gather to recall the past. Narratives of shared experience and history do not simply represent identity and emotion, they even constitute them. In other words, histories told and remembered by those who inherit them are discourses of identity, just as identity is inevitably a discourse of history. Thus, ‘history teaching’, as Appleby claims, ‘is identity formation’ (1998: 1-14). Especially for the people who live in communities transformed by powerful outside forces, the common perception of a threat to their existence as well as the narrative accounts of socio-religio-cultural contact with the outside world had created identity through the idiom of shared history. However, just as history is never finished, neither is identity. It is continually refashioned as people make cultural meaning out of shifting social and political circumstances. In present Chinram, it is Christianity that provides a means of preserving and promoting the self-awareness of Chin identity through its theological concepts and ideology and its ecclesiastical structure, and the Chin people are gradually adjusted to Christianity through an accelerated religious change in their society.

By Salai Za Uk Ling
Lakehead University

Culture and religion together form an important part of Chin society. As such, historically these two elements are closely and inseparably intertwined with one another. In modern times, Christian religion is deeply rooted in Chin society. Since the first Chin conversion in the late 1800s following the arrival of American Baptist missionaries to the Chin Hills, Christianity gradually became accepted by a large majority of Chin populations who had practiced traditional animism for centuries. A century later, Christianity has evolved into almost a second culture of the Chin people. Because many Chin traditional and cultural practices prior to Christianity were thought to be inconsistent with Christian beliefs, these practices were abandoned with acceptance of the new faith. The “Christian way of life” gradually replaced the “old life”. [1]

Because the Chin traditional religion was inseparably linked with the Chin way of life, transition to a new religion also meant changing some of cultural practices to make them consistent with the new Chin religion. In other word, they adopted Christianity not only as their new religion but also as part of their new culture. For example, the newly Christian converts would stage what is called “cleansing of the house,”[2] which involved removing of altars and “skulls of animals [they hung above their doors] that have been sacrificed in days past to appease evil spirits”.[3] At the same time, Chin Christians  abandoned many of their traditional feasts and sacrificial ceremonies which were associated with their past religion. These were “the key social and ritual activities through which the transformation of identities and communities are accomplished.”[4] Over the last century, the new “identity” or Christianity has become deeply entrenched in the Chin society.

The impact of Christianity was not only confined within the spiritual and cultural contexts of the Chin people. It manifested itself as a uniting force for different Chin communities who had been deeply divided and antagonistic to one another due to differences in traditional clan systems and isolated from one another by geographical barriers.  With their conversion to Christianity, the notion of acceptance replaced their traditional mindset of exclusionism, and Christian Chins embraced one another as members of a community of faith in Christ.  At the same time, there developed a new self-consciousness and political awareness of Chin cultural homogeneity, thus providing a new framework for Chin nationalism. Moreover, early missionaries introduced modern education and written communication to the Chin people.  

When Chin leaders signed the Panglong Agreement on February 12, 1947 to join the newly independent Union of Burma as an equal constituent state, from a religious point of view, it was more than merely becoming a political unit of a new modern state: it also meant having to live together with other religious groups within a greater political collective. As there is a correlation between ethnicity and religion in Burma, “political identification with Christianity, with the Church, gave the Chin a basis for treating the Burman on more or less equal footing.”[5]  According to Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, a prominent Chin scholar and an authority on the study of Chin religion and politics, the movements of Chin Christian institutions in pre-independence period have “inspired the new Chin [political] self-consciousness within the Union of Burma.”[6]   

In the post-independence era, through Christian religious associations such as Chin Hills Baptist Association (CHBA), also known inter-changeably with All Chin Baptist Association,[7] and now reformed as Zomi (Chin)[8] Baptist Association, Christianity continues to provide a venue for the Chin to develop their bonds and strengthen their relationships with one another.

Although some of their old cultural practices were discontinued, many Chin traditions were preserved by slightly modifying them to conform to Christianity. For example, because “there was no worship without feasts”[9] in old Chin culture, this tradition is carried on to the “new faith.” “Christmas (Khrismas), New Year (Kumthar) and Easter (Tho) became the most important social feasts and festivals for the new Chin Christian community.”[10]  Accordingly, as a cultural and religious practice, gathering and sharing with members of the community are important activities for the Chin people, functions that, in many parts of Chin State and in areas populated by Chin Christians, are now either restricted or disallowed under the present military regime.

In the late1970s, the Zomi Baptist Convention (ZBC), the highest religious institution of the Chin, launched an indigenous missionary program, Chin for Christ in One Century (CCOC), aimed at making the entire Chin people become Christians by the end of the twentieth century. Under the program, the ZBC recruited volunteer missionaries and evangelists from various parts of Chin State to carry out its mission in certain parts of Chin State, especially the northern part, and other adjoining areas inhabited by many non-Christian Chins. By the end of the program in late 1990s, the CCOC converted a large proportion of non-Christians, despite several restrictions and persecution suffered by the missionaries from the Burmese authorities, including coercion, intimidation and physical attacks by the army.

Christian pastors and ministers secure high reverence and respect among the Chin people. They are highly respected as intermediaries between God and the congregations. Even outside of the Church, they play significant leadership role on occasions such as death, birth or marriage in the community. Also, because there are no Chin people represented in the local or state administration under the Burmese military regime, even in a secular setting, they receive high degrees of respect as leaders of the community. Today, their dignitary position has attracted the attention and jealousy of the ruling military regime, making them the first targets in the regime’s campaign against Christianity and Chin people.


[1]  Lian H. Sakhong, Religion and Politics among the Chin People in Burma. Uppsala University: 2000, p 340

[2]  Ibid

[3]  Ibid., 342

[4]  Ibid., 344

[5]  Lehman, F.K, The Structure of Chin Society. Urbana: Illinois University Press, p 5

[6]  Lian Hmung Sakhong’s Ph.D. dissertation: Religion and Politics among the Chin People in Burma, 1986-1949, was published by Uppsala University, Sweden in May 2000.

[7]  Ibid., 337

[8]  Zomi is synonymous name for Chin

[9]  Ibid., 348

[10]  Ibid.,349

[Salai Za Uk Ling is Associate Editor of CHRO publication Rhododendron Human Rights News. He is also co-author of CHRO’s publication “RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christian in Burma”]

Lian H. Sakhong-Uppsala University

Introduction The United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD), an umbrella political organization of non-Burman or non-Myanmar nationalities in Burma, was formed in 1988 following the nationwide democracy movement against three decades of General Ne Win’s dictatorship. From the very beginning, the UNLD adopted a policy aimed at the establishment of a genuine federal union based on democratic rights for all citizens, political equality for all nationalities and the rights of self-determination for all member states of the Union. It openly declared that democracy without federalism would not solve the political crisis in Burma, including the civil war, which had already been fought, for four decades. Thus for the UNLD, the ultimate goal of the democratic movement in present Burma is not only to restore democratic government but to establish a genuine federal union. In other words, the UNLD views the root of political crisis in Burma today as a constitutional problem ra! ther than a purely ideological confrontation between democracy and dictatorship.

In this paper, I shall explore the role of the UNLD in the on-going struggle for democracy and federalism in Burma. In doing this, attention will be given to the basic principles of federalism and democratic decentralization, which of course is the goal of the movement and the aim of the UNLD. However, instead of presenting a theoretical paper on the basic principles of federalism, I shall focus my attention to the quest for federalism within the historical framework of “religious and ethnic conflicts”, so-called, in modern Burma. In this way, I shall argue that the democracy movement in Burma since the military coup d’état in 1962 is the continuation of the “federal movement” during the parliamentary democratic period in the 1950s and early 1960s. The central argument in this paper therefore will run through the military coup in 1962 as “the culmination of political process” stemming from the political crisis during the parliamentary democratic perio! d. I shall then try to point out how and why we can view the role of UNLD in present struggle as the continuation of the Supreme Council of the United Hills Peoples (SCOUHP), which played a leading role in federal movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Another way of putting it is to say that what the UNLD is trying to achieve at present is what the SCOUHP attempted even before the military coup in 1962. But because the federal movement led by the SCOUHP was abruptly interrupted by the military coup in 1962, the struggle for democracy and federalism needs to be continued today.

Background History

The Union of Burma is a nation-state of diverse ethnic nations (ethnic nationalities or nationalities), founded in 1947 at the Panglong Conference by pre-colonial independent ethnic nationalities such as the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Rakhine (Arakan), Myanmar (Burman), and Shan , based on the principle of equality. As it was founded by formerly independent peoples in 1947 through an agreement, the boundaries of the Union of Burma today are not historical. Rather, the Union of Burma, or Burma in its current form, was born of the historic Panglong Agreement signed in 1947.

In order to understand the complex background of religious and ethnic diversity in Burma, one might firstly note that there is an age-old identification of Burman/Myanmar ethnicity and Buddhism, which has been the dominant ideological and political force in what is today called the Union of Burma or Myanmar. Secondly, there are other ethnic nations or nationalities such as the Mon, Rakhine (Arakan), and Shan, who are Buddhists, but feel dominated by the Burman/Myanmar majority. Thirdly, there are ethnic nationalities who are predominantly Christians within a Baptist tradition. The most prominent Christian groups are the Chin, Kachin and Karen. They — like the Mon and the Shan — form ethnic communities which transcend the boundaries of the modern nation-states of Burma, Bangladesh, India, China, and Thailand. The present state of relations between majority Burman/Myanmar Buddhists and minority Christian ethnic groups must be understood against the backgroun! d of colonial history.

The British annexed “Burma Proper”, i.e., the Burman or Myanmar Kingdom, in three Anglo-Burmese wars fought in 1824-26, 1852 and 1885. As a result, the British took over Burma Proper in three stages: the Rakhine (Arakan) and Tenasserim coastal provinces in 1826, Lower Burma (previously Mon Kingdom) including Rangoon — the present capital of Burma — in 1852, and Upper Burma including Mandalay, the last capital of the Burman Kingdom in 1885. When the last King of Burma, Thibaw, was deposed and exiled to India, the possessions of the Burman Kingdom — including semi-independent tributaries of the Burman king, such as the Arakan and the Mon — were transferred to the British. However, this arrangement did not include the Chin, Kachin, Shan and Karenni, who were completely independent peoples, and had never been conquered by the Burman King. Thus, the British separately conquered or “pacified” them during a different period of time. The Chin people, for instanc! e, were “pacified” only ten years after the fall of Mandalay, and their land Chinram, or Chinland, was not declared a part of British India until 1896.

During the colonial period, the British applied two different administrative systems: “direct rule” and “indirect rule”. The first was applied to the peoples and areas they conquered together with the Burman Kingdom, i.e., “Burma Proper”. “Indirect rule”, on the other hand, was applied to the peoples who were “pacified” or added by treaty (the Shan principalities, for example) to the British empire after the annexation of the Burman kingdom. Under the British policy of “indirect rule”, the traditional princes and local chiefs of the Chin, Kachin and the Shan were allowed to retain a certain level of administrative and judiciary powers within their respective territories.

In 1937, when the Burma Act of 1935 was officially implemented, Burma Proper was separated from British India and given a Governor of its own. The 1935 Act also created a government structure for Burma Proper, with a Prime Minister and cabinet. The Legislative Council for Burma Proper was also created, although essential power remained firmly in the hands of the British Governor and Westminster. From that time on, Burma Proper was commonly known as “Ministerial Burma”. In contrast to this, the term “Excluded Areas” was used to denote the Chin, Kachin and Shan States (Federated Shan States), which were not only subject to “indirect rule”, but also excluded from the Legislative Council of Ministerial Burma. The term “Excluded Areas”, however, was superseded by the term “Frontier Areas” when the British government created a “Frontier Area Administration” soon after the Second World War.

The Second World War and the Japanese invasion of Burma brought British rule to an abrupt end. Accompanied and helped by the Burma Independence Army (BIA) led by General Aung San (later, U Aung San, upon leaving the armed services), the Japanese easily eliminated the British and captured Rangoon. In May 1942, the Governor of Burma fled to Simla, India, and established the British Burma government in exile there. Having successfully driven the British into India, the Japanese occupied Burma Proper and set up a military administration along their lines of advance.

When the BIA were allowed by the Japanese to be stationed in the Irrawady delta where the majority of the population were Karen, who were loyal to the British, communal violence erupted between the Karen and the Burman. The Japanese ended the bloodbath but only after more than 1,000 Karen civilians lost their lives. Because of that event, a full-scale war broke out between the Karen and the newly independent Burmese government in 1949. This ethnic conflict was the beginning of civil war in modern Burma, in which hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost over more than five decades and which is still in progress. As will be explained, only in the case of the Karen, can the term “ethnic conflict” be applied, but not, for example, the Chin, Kachin, Shan, etc..

After expelling the Japanese, the British returned to Burma in the spring of 1945. They outlined their long-term plan for the future of Burma in the form of a White Paper. This plan provided for a three-year period of direct rule under the British Governor, during which economic rehabilitation from the ravages of war was to be undertaken. Next, the Legislative Council of Ministerial Burma would be restored in accordance with the 1935 Burma Act. Only after the elections had been held under this Act would the legislature be invited to frame a new constitution “which would eventually provide the basis on which Burma would be granted dominion status.” For the Frontier Areas, the White Paper provided a means of maintaining the pre-war status quo. The Karenni (Kayah) State was still bound by the pre-colonial treaty as an independent nation. Since the Chinram, the Kachin State and the Federated Shan States were excluded from the administration of Burma Proper, they would, according to the White Paper, have “a special regime under the Governor”. When Stevenson became the Director of the Frontier Areas Administration, he even promoted plans to create a “United Frontier Union” for the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Shan and other non-Burman nationalities. However, the plans did not come to fruition as the British Conservative Party of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, lost the general election in 1945.

In the early stage of the post-war period, the British strongly highlighted the rights and interests of the Chin, Kachin, Karen and other non-Burman nationalities from the Frontier Areas who had loyally defended the British Empire during the war. But when the Labour Government came to power, Britain reversed its policy, and Burma’s political agenda became largely a matter of bilateral negotiation between the British Labor government and U Aung San’s AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League). Thus, in December 1946, the Labor government invited only U Aung San, the undisputed leader of the Burmese nationalist movement. The delegation, which did not include a single representative from the Frontier Areas, went to London to discuss “the steps that would be necessary to constitute Burma a sovereign independent nation.” Since Attlee’s Labour Government had already prepared to grant Burma’s independence either within or without the Commonwealth, the London talk! s were largely a formality, at most putting into more concrete form the principles to which they had already agreed. It might be said — as Churchill stated in parliament — the people of the Frontier Area were abandoned by the British and left to salvage what they could of their former independent status with U Aung San and the AFPFL.

The Question of Non-Burman Nationalities

At the London Talks in December 1946, the Burman delegates demanded that “the amalgamation of the Frontier Areas and Ministerial Burma should take place at once, and that the Governor’s responsibility for the Frontier Areas should end.” As noted already, the London Talks was bilateral negotiation between the British Labor government and Aung San’s AFPFL without a single representative from non-Burman nationalities. Although there were at least three Karen members in the Constituent Assembly of the Interim Burmese government, none of them were included in the London Talks. Instead, Aung San included several councilors, civil servants and politicians in the delegation. He even included his main rival politicians such as U Saw and Ba Sein.

On the demand of amalgamation of Frontier Areas with the Ministerial Burma, the British countered the AFPFL’s demand with the following position: The HMG for their part are bound by solemn undertakings to the people of those Areas to regard their wishes in this matter, and they have deep obligations to those peoples for the help that they gave during the war. According to the information available to HMG the Frontier Areas are not yet ready or willing to amalgamate with Burma Proper.

During the talk, Attlee received a cable from the Shan Sawbwa (princes), through the Frontier Areas Administration and the Governor, stating that Aung San and his delegation did not represent the Shan and the Frontier Areas. Stevenson, Director of Frontier Areas Administration, also cabled to London, saying that, We understand that the Hon’ble U Aung San and the Burman Mission visiting London will seek the control of FA. If this is the case we wish to state emphatically that neither the Hon’ble Aung San nor his colleagues has any mandate to speak on behalf of FA.

In short, Aung San and his delegation had no right to discuss the future of the Frontier Areas. Indeed, it might rightly be said that Aung San and his delegation neither represented nor had the right to discuss the future of the peoples of the Frontier Areas, especially the Chin, Kachin, and Shan because they were independent peoples before the colonial period and were conquered separately by the British, and they were not part of Ministerial Burma (Burma Proper). Aung San could therefore legitimately represent only Burma Proper, or the Ministerial Burma, which belonged to an old Burman or Myanmar kingdom before colonial period. In the pre-colonial period, no Burman or Myanmar King had ever conquered, for instance, the Chin people and their land, Chinram. That was the reason the British had applied two different administrative systems. Thus, when Burma and India were to be given independence by the British, the Chinram was not to be handed over to either India or Burma since it was not annexed by the British as a part of either country. They had the fu! ll right to be a sovereign independent state by themselves when the British withdrew its imperial administration from British India and Burma. In a nutshell, Aung San did not and could not represent the Chin and/or other nationalities from the Frontier Areas without any mandate from the peoples themselves.

During this critical period, U Aung San showed not only his honesty but also his ability for great leadership, which eventually won the trust of the non-Burman nationalities. He acknowledged the fact that the non-Burman nationalities from the Frontier Areas had the right to regain their freedom, independence, and sovereign status because they were not the subjects of the pre-colonial Burman or Myanmar Kingdom. Thus, they had the very right of self-determination: to decide on their own whether they would like to gain independence directly from Great Britain, and to found their own sovereign nation-states, or to jointly obtain independence with Burma, or even to remain as Provinces of the Commonwealth of Great Britain. Aung San reassessed his position and bravely and wisely put his signature to the historic agreement, the Aung San-Attlee Agreement, signed on January 27,1947. This historic agreement spelled out the position of the Frontier Areas vis-B-vis indep! endence that was to be granted Ministerial Burma, as below:

8. Frontier Areas:

( b ) The leaders and the representatives of the peoples of the Frontier Areas shall be asked, either at the Panglong Conference to be held at the beginning of next month or at a special conference to be convened for the purpose of expressing their views upon the form of association with the government of Burma which they consider acceptable during the transition period . . .

( c ) After the Panglong Conference, or the special conference, His Majesty’s government and the government of Burma will agree upon the best method of advancing their common aims in accordance with the expressed views of the peoples of the Frontier Areas.

However, on that particular issue of non-Burman nationalities, two members of the Burman delegation refused to sign the Aung San-Attlee Agreement. One was U Saw, the former Prime Minister, and the other was Thakin Ba Sein, who had shared with Thakin Tun Ok the leadership of the minority faction of Dobama Asi-Azone after it split earlier (in 1938). In their view, the clause concerning the Frontier Area in the Agreement carried an implicit threat of “dividing Burma into two parts.” Thus, they not only ignored the history of non-Burman nationalities such as the Chin, Kachin and Shan, but also the will of the people from the Frontier Areas. Upon their return to Rangoon, U Saw and Thakin Ba Sein joined Ba Maw and Paw Tun, another former Prime Minister, formed the National Opposition Front, and accused Aung San of having sold out for the sake of holding office. U Aung San, however, was not unduly troubled by the accusations of his political opponents and plunged straight into negotiation with pre-colonial independent nationalities such as the Chin, Kachin and Shan. As mentioned above, the Aung San-Attlee Agreement had left the future of the Frontier Areas to the decision of its people.

Jointly gaining Independence with Burma After having successfully negotiated with the British, U Aung San turned his attention to the non-Burman nationalities and persuaded them to jointly obtain independence with Burma. He promised the frontier peoples separate status with full autonomy within the Burma Union, active participation at the centre within a Senate-like body, protection of minority rights, and the right of secession. He also promised to make the agreed terms into law as guarantee of their right for the future, and told them they need have no fear of the Burman. The negotiations between Aung San, as the sole representative of the interim Burmese government, and the Chin, Kachin and Shan, were held at the Panglong Conference in February 1947.

U Aung San successfully persuaded the Chin, Kachin, and Shan to join Independent Burma as equal, co-independent partners, and the historic Panglong Agreement was thus signed on February 12, 1947. The essence of the Panglong Agreement – the Panglong Spirit — was that the Chin, Kachin, and Shan did not surrender their rights of self-determination and sovereignty to the Burman. They signed the Panglong Agreement as a means to speed up their own search for freedom together with the Burman and other nationalities in what became the Union of Burma. Thus, the preamble of the Panglong Agreement declares: Believing that freedom will be more speedily achieved by the Shans, the Kachins, and the Chins by their immediate co-operation with the interim Burmese government.

The Panglong Agreement therefore represented a joint vision of the future of the pre-colonial independent peoples — namely the Chin, Kachin, Shan and the interim Burmese government led by Chief Minister Aung San, who came into power in August 1946 according to the Burma Act of 1935. The interim Burmese government was a government for the region formerly known as Burma Proper or Ministerial Burma, which included such non-Burman nationalities as the Mon, Rakhine (Arakan), and Karen. The Arakan and Mon were included because they were occupied by the British not as independent peoples but as the subjects of the kingdom of Burman or Myanmar. The Karens were included in the Legislative Council of Ministerial Burma according to the 1935 Burma Act because the majority of the Karens (more than two-thirds of the population) were living in delta areas side by side with the Burmans. Since these peoples were included in the Legislative Council of Ministerial Burma, U Au! ng San could represent them in Panglong as the head of their government. Thus, the Panglong Agreement should be viewed as an agreement to found a new sovereign, independent nation-state between peoples from pre-colonial independent nations of what they then called Frontier Areas and Burma Proper, who in principle had the right to regain their independence directly from Great Britain, and to form their own respective nation-states. In other words, the Panglong Agreement was an agreement signed between the peoples of a post-colonial nation-state-to-be. Ever since the Union of Burma gained independence in 1948, the date the Panglong Agreement was signed has been celebrated as Union Day. The observance of February12th as Union Day means the mutual recognition of the Chin, Kachin, Shan and other nationalities, including the Burmans, as “different people historically and traditionally due to their differences in their languages as well as their cultural life”. It is also the recognition of the distinct national identity of the Chin, Kachin, Shan, and other nationalities who had the right to gain their own independence separately and to found their own nation-state separately. In other words, it is the recognition of pre-colonial independent status of the Chin, Kachin, and Shan, and other nationalities as well as their post-colonial status of nation-state-to-be.

Condition Underpinning the Creation of the Union of Burma

According to the Aung San-Attlee Agreement, the Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry (FACE) was formed to inquire through an additional and specific consultation about the wishes of the frontier peoples. The British government appointed Col. D. R. Rees-William as Chairman of the FACE. Since the committee conducted its inquiry after the signing of the Panglong Agreement during March and April 1947, the evidence they heard was generally in favour of cooperation with Burma but under the condition of:

Equal rights with Burman,

Full internal autonomy for Hill Areas [ that is, ethnic national states] , and The right of secession from Burma at any time.

The FACE finally concluded its report to the Government that the majority of witnesses who supported cooperation with Burma demanded the “right of secession by the States at any time”.

The FACE report, particularly the right of secession, was strongly criticized by such Burman nationalists as U Saw and Thakhin Ba Sein who had earlier refused to sign the Aung San-Attlee Agreement. They accused Aung San of having given up Burman territory and argued that the Frontier Areas were just the creation of the colonial policy of “divide and rule”. U Aung San dismissed this criticism as historically unfounded and politically unwise. And he said, “The right of secession must be given, but it is our duty to work and show (our sincerity) so that they don’t wish to leave.” And in keeping with his promise to the Chin, Kachin and Shan leaders at the Panglong Conference to make agreed term into law, the right of secession was provided for in the 1947 Union Constitution of Burma, Chapter X, Article 201, and 202:

Chapter (X): The Right of Secession

201. Save as otherwise expressly provided in this Constitution or in any Act of Parliament made under section 199, every state shall have the right to secede from the Union in accordance with the condition hereinafter prescribed. 202. The right of secession shall not be exercised within ten years from the date on which this Constitution comes into operation.

Although the “right of secession” was put into law in the Union Constitution, Burma did not become a genuine federal union.

The End of Aung San’s Policies of Pluralism and Federalism

At the Panglong Conference in 1947, the Chin, Kachin, Shan and other non-Burman nationalities were promised, as Silverstein observes, the right to exercise political authority of [ administrative, judiciary, and legislative powers in their own autonomous national states] and to preserve and protect their language, culture, and religion in exchange for voluntarily joining the Burman in forming a political union and giving their loyalty to a new state. Unfortunately, U Aung San, who persuaded the Chin, Kachin, Shan and other non-Burman nationalities to join Independent Burma as equal partners, was assassinated by U Saw on July 19, 1947. He was succeeded by U Nu as leader of the AFPFL. When U Nu became the leader of the AFPFL, Burman politics shifted in a retro-historical direction, backward toward the Old Kingdom of Myanmar or Burman. The new backward-looking policies did nothing to accommodate non-Myanmar/Burman nationalities who had agreed to join Independent Burma only for the sake of “speeding up freedom”.

As a leader of the AFPFL, the first thing U Nu did was to give an order to U Chan Htun to re-draft U Aung San’s version of the Union Constitution, which had already been approved by the AFPFL Convention in May 1947. U Chan Htun’s version of the Union Constitution was promulgated by the Constituent Assembly of the interim government of Burma in September 1947. Thus, the fate of the country and the people, especially the fate of the non-Burman/Myanmar nationalities, changed dramatically between July and September 1947. As a consequence, Burma did not become a genuine federal union, as U Chan Htun himself admitted to historian Hugh Tinker. He said, “Our country, though in theory federal, is in practice unitary.”

On the policy of religion, U Nu also reversed U Aung San’s policy after the latter was assassinated. Although Aung San, the hero of independence and the founder of the Union of Burma, had opted for a “secular state” with a strong emphasis on “pluralism” and the “policy of unity in diversity” in which all different religious and racial groups in the Union could live together peacefully and harmoniously, U Nu opted for a more confessional and exclusive policy on religion. The revision of Aung San’s version of the Union Constitution thus proved to be the end of his policy for a secular state and pluralism in Burma, which eventually led to the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion of the Union of Burma in 1961.

For the Chin and other non-Burman nationalities, the promulgation of Buddhism as the “state religion of the Union of Burma” in 1961 was the greatest violation of the Panglong Agreement in which U Aung San and the leaders of the non-Burman nationalities agreed to form a Union based on the principle of equality. They therefore viewed the passage of the state religion bill not only as religious issue, but also as a constitutional problem, in that this had been allowed to happen. In other words, they now viewed the Union Constitution as an instrument for imposing “a tyranny of majority”, not as their protector. Thus, the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion of Burma became not a pious deed, but a symbol of the tyranny of the majority under the semi-unitary system of the Union Constitution.

There were two different kinds of reactions to the state religion reform from different non-Burman nationalities. The first reaction came from more radical groups who opted for an armed rebellion against the central government in order to gain their political autonomy and self-determination. The most serious armed rebellion as a direct result of the adoption of Buddhism as state religion was that of the Kachin Independence Army, which emerged soon after the state religion of Buddhism was promulgated in 1961. The “Christian Kachin”, as Graver observes, “saw the proposal for Buddhism to be the state religion as further evidence of the Burmanization [Myanmarization] of the country,” which they had to prevent by any means, including an armed rebellion. The Chin rebellion, led by Hrang Nawl, was also related to the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion, but the uprising was delayed until 1964 owing to tactical problems. Thus, the Chin rebellion wa! s mostly seen as the result of the 1962 military coup, rather than the result of the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion in 1961.

The second reaction came from more moderate groups, who opted for constitutional means of solving their problems, rather than an armed rebellion. The most outstanding leader among these moderate groups was Sao Shwe Thaike of Yawnghwe, a prominent Shan Sawbwa who was elected as the first President of the Union of Burma. Although a devout Buddhist, he strongly opposed the state religion bill because he saw it as a violation of the Panglong Agreement. As a president of the Supreme Council of United Hills People (SCOUHP), formed during the Panglong Conference, he invited leaders of not only the Chin, Kachin and Shan, the original members of the SCOUHP, but also other non-Burman nationalities — the Karen, Kayah, Mon, and Rakhine (Arakan) — to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, to discuss constitutional problems. Unfortunately, these problems still remain unsolved. The conference was attended by 226 delegates and came to be known as the 1961 Taunggyi Conferenc! e, and the movement itself was known later as the Federal Movement.

The Federal Movement in 1961-62

At the Taunggyi Conference, all delegates, except three who belonged to U Nu’s party, agreed to amend the Union Constitution based on Aung San’s draft, which the AFPFL convention had approved in May 1947, as noted already. At the AFPFL convention, U Aung San asked, “Now when we build our new Burma shall we build it as a Union or as Unitary State?…. “In my opinion”, he answered, “it will not be feasible to set up a Unitary State. We must set up a Union with properly regulated provisions to safeguard the right of the national minorities.” According to U Aung San’s version of the constitution, the Union would be composed of National States, or what he called “Union States” such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan and Burman States and other National States such as Karen, Karenni (Kayah), Mon and Rakhine (Arakan) States. “The original idea”, as Dr. Maung Maung observes, “was that the Union States should have their own separate constitutions, their own organs! of state, viz. Parliament, Government and Judiciary.”

U Chan Htun had reversed all these principles of the Federal Union after Aung San was assassinated. According to U Chan Htun’s version of the Union Constitution, the Burma Proper or the ethnic Burman/ Myanmar did not form their own separate National State; instead they combined the power of Burman/Myanmar National State with the whole sovereign authority of the Union of Burma. Thus, while one ethnic group, the Burman/ Myanmar, controlled the sovereign power of the Union, that is, legislative, judiciary, and administrative powers of the Union of Burma; the rest of the ethnic nationalities who formed their own respective National States became almost like the “vassal states” of the ethnic Burman or Myanmar. This constitutional arrangement was totally unacceptable to the Chin, Kachin, Shan who signed the Panglong Agreement on the principle of equality, and also for other nationalities.

They therefore demanded at the 1961 Taunggyi Conference the amendment of the Union Constitution and the formation a genuine Federal Union composed of National States, with the full rights of political autonomy, i.e., legislative, judiciary and administrative powers within their own National States, and self-determination including the right of secession. They also demanded separation between the political power of the Burman/Myanmar National State and the sovereign power of the Union, i.e., the creation of a Burman or Myanmar National State within the Union.

The second point they wanted to amend on the Union Constitution was the structure of Chamber of Nationalities. The original idea of the creation of the Chamber of Nationalities was that it was not only to the safeguard of the rights of non-Burman nationalities but also for the symbolic and real equality, envisaged at the Panglong Conference. Thus, what they wanted was that each National State should have the right to send equal representatives to the Chamber of Nationalities, no matter how big or small their National State might be. In other words, they wanted a kind of Upper House like the American Senate. But what had happened according to U Chan Htun’s Union Constitution, was that while all the non-Burman nationalities had to send their tribal or local chiefs and princes to the Chamber of Nationalities; it allowed Burma Proper to elect representatives to the Chamber of Nationalities based on population. Thus, the Burman or Myanmar from Burma Proper, who composed majority in terms of population, were given domination in the Union Assembly.

In this way, the Union Assembly, according to U Chan Htun’s version of the Union Constitution, was completely under the control of the Burman or Myanmar ethnic nationality. Not only did the powerful Chamber of Deputy had the power to thwart aspirations and interest of non-Burman nationalities, but the Burmans also dominated even the Chamber of Nationalities. That was the reason the total votes of non-Burman nationalities could not block the state religion bill even at the Chamber of Nationalities. Thus, all the non-Burman nationalities now viewed the Union Constitution itself as an instrument for imposing “a tyranny of majority”, not as their protector. They therefore demanded a change of such constitutional injustice at the 1961 Taunggyi Conference. Thus, the Federal Movement and its Taunggyi Conference can be viewed, as noted by a Shan scholar Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, as “a collective non-Burman effort to correct serious imbalances inherent in the constitution! ” of 1947.

In response to the demand of the 1961 Taungyi Conference, U Nu had no choice but to invite all the political leaders and legal experts from both Burman and non-Burman nationalities to what became known as the Federal Seminar at which “the issues of federalism and the problems of minorities would be discussed with a view to finding a peaceful solution.” The meeting opened on 24 February, 1962 in Rangoon while the parliament was meeting also in regular session. But before the seminar was concluded and just before U Nu was scheduled to speak, the military led by General Ne Win seized state power in the name of the Revolutionary Council in the early morning of 2 March, arresting all the non-Burman participants of the Federal Seminar and legally elected cabinet members, including U Nu himself, dissolving the parliament, suspending the constitution and ending all the debate on federal issues.

The Military Coup in March 1962

Brigadier Aung Gyi, the most powerful but second only to General Ne Win in the Revolutionary Council, stated that the main reason of the military coup in 1962 was “the issue of federalism.” The Burma Army, which staged the coup d́état, was “the product of Burman nationalism,” as a Shan leader and scholar Chao Tzang Yawnghwe pointed out, “a national sentiment revolving around racial pride and memories of the imperial glories of Burinnong, Alaungpaya and Hsinphyusin, and was very much enraged by the federal movement. They were desperate too, since a successful constitutional reform would undermine the army’s supremacy in the non-Burman areas. Moreover, if the constitutional reform was carried out successfully, the Burman would be on the same level as non-Burman nationalities and this certainly was unthinkable for Burman national-chauvinists like Ne Win and Aung Gyi.

Although the Burma Army was originally established by Aung San as the BIA (Burma Independence Army) during the Second World War, two factions from very different backgrounds made up the Thirty Comrades, the core of the BIA. “Twenty-two of the young comrades were followers of the old writer and national hero, Thakhin Kodaw Hmaing” and were later known as “Kodaw Hmaing-Aung San faction”. But another eight, including Ne Win, came from the “Ba Sein-Tun Oke faction.” As noted already, Ba Sein refused to sign the Aung San-Attlee Agreement, mainly because of non-Burman nationalities issues on which he could not agree with U Aung San. As a matter of the fact, while Aung San had officially recognized, by signing that agreement, the pre-colonial independent status of the Chin, Kachin, Shan and other non-Burman nationalities, and their right to regain independence directly from Great Britain and their right to form their own respective sovereign nation-states without a! ny mutual attachment to Burma, Ba Sein and his fellow U Saw, who later killed Aung San, could not recognize historical truth and refused to sign that agreement in 1947. They also accused U Aung San of being a traitor of Burman traditional nationalism, and they went about saying that Burma had been sold down the river by Aung San. Hence, General Ne Win and Brigadier Aung Gyi, as the most faithful disciples of the Ba Sein-Tun Oke Burman national-chauvinist faction, reclaimed their vision of Burma — which in their view U Aung San betrayed. And they promulgated the Unitary State Constitution in 1974 by force.

Ever since the chauvinistic Burma Army launched a full range of “Myanmarization” measures under the leadership of General Ne Win, the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni (Kayah), Rakhine (Arakan), Shan and other non-Burman nationalities have had no choice but to struggle for their survival by any means, including the use of arms. Today almost all non-Burman nationalities are fighting against the central government in order to gain full political autonomy and self-determination within the Union of Burma. Thus, the civil war in Burma which began at the time of independence intensified under General Ne Win’s military dictatorship and his successor, the present military junta, which came into power in 1988, in order to suppress the nation-wide popular uprising for a democratic change.

Struggle for the Second Independence

As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi correctly points out, the struggle for democracy, equality and self-determination in present Burma is the struggle for the second independence of Burma because what Burma’s leaders tried hard to achieve in the first independence movement had all been coercively negated by General Ne Win in the 1962 military coup. Moreover, the 1962 military coup abruptly interrupted the federal movement, which indeed was a struggle for the reformation of a genuine federal union in accordance with the Panglong Agreement and Spirit. Thus, the nation-wide democratic movement in 1988 can be seen as the struggle for the second independence, especially as the revival of the spirit of Panglong. Likewise, the formation of the UNLD can be viewed as the continuation of federal movements in 1950s and 1960s, then led by the SCOUHP.

In order to achieve the goal of the struggle for the second independence, the UNLD therefore adopted the following policies as its objectives: (1) To establish a genuine federal union.

(2) To guarantee democratic rights, political equality, and self-determination for all nationalities of the Union.

(3) To build a firm unity of all nationalities in the Union based on the principles of equality and justice.

(4) To promote the development of all member states of the Union.

(5) To abolish all types totalitarianism in Burma.

(6) To establish internal peace and tranquility through dialogue.

The UNLD believes that for building a genuine federal union, the Union constitution must be based on a democratic administrative system, because as noted by a Shan analyst, “….democracy is an essential pre-condition for federalism. Federalism will not work in a polity where there is no democracy because federalism is, at the bottom, about decentralization of power and limits placed on power. In federalism the above is achieved via a set of arrangement that limits and divides or disperses power, so that parts of the whole are empowered and are further enabled to check central power and prevent the concentration of power.” In short, democracy and federalism are inseparable, as head and tail of a coin, in a pluralistic and multi-ethnic country like Burma.

The Basic Principles of Federal Union

On the formation of a genuine Federal Union, the UNLD has adopted seven principles of federalism for the future constitution of the Federal Union of Burma, at its conference held in Rangoon, on June 29 – July 2, 1990. These seven principles are:

The constitution of the Federal Union of Burma shall be formed in accordance with the principles of federalism and democratic decentralization. The Union Constitution shall guarantee the democratic rights of citizens of Burma including the principles contain in the United Nation’s declaration of universal human rights.

The Union Constitution shall guarantee political equality among all ethnic national states of the Federal Union of Burma.

The Federal Union of Burma shall be composed of National States; and all National States of the Union shall be constituted in terms of ethnicity, rather than geographical areas. There must be at least eight National States, namely, Chin State, Kachin State, Karen State, Kaya State, Mon State, Myanmar or Burma State, Rakhine (Arakan State), and Shan State.

The Union Assembly shall be consisting of two legislative chambers: the Chamber of Nationalities (Upper House) and the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House). The Chamber of Nationalities (Upper House) shall be composed of equal numbers of elected representatives from the respective National States; and The Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) shall be composed of elected representatives from the respective constituencies of the peoples.

The creation of Chamber of Nationalities based on equal representation of the member states of the Union is intended to safeguard the rights of National States and minorities in the Union government. It also intended as a symbol and instrument of the principle of equality among all nationalities of the Union. In addition to the Union Assembly, all member states of the Union shall form their own separate Legislative Assemblies for their respective National States. In Federalism there must be a clear separation of Union Assembly, or Federal Parliament, from the Legislative Assemblies of the member states of the Union. Moreover, the residual powers, that is, all powers, except those given by member states to the federal center, or the Union, must be vested in the Legislative Assembly of the National State. In this way, the Union Constitution automatically allocates political authority of legislative, judiciary, and administrative powers to the Legislative Assembly of the National States. Thus, all member states of the Union can freely exercise the right of self-determination through the right of self-government within their respective National States.

The Sovereignty of the Union shall be vested in the people of the Union of Burma, and shall be exercised by the Union Assembly. Moreover, the central government of the Federal Union shall have authority to decide on action for: (i) monetary system, (ii) defense, (iii) foreign relation, and (iv) other authorities which temporarily vested in the central government of Federal Union by member states of the Union.

UNLD Policies concerning the Power Transition

After the election held in May 1990, the UNLD adopted some policies to be applied during the power transition from an authoritarian military junta to a democratically elected government. Among them: (1) tripartite dialogue, (2) national reconciliation, and (3) national convention. In this paper I shall discuss briefly the need for national convention and tripartite dialogue, the policies adopted by the UNLD at the conference held in Rangoon from June 29-July 2, 1990. I shall, however, omit in this paper the policy of National Reconciliation, the program that is mainly conducted by the UNLD in exile together with other democratic forces, such as NCGUB, NCUB, NDF, and others.

(a) UNLD for Tripartite Dialogue

From the very beginning, the UNLD has opted for a non-violent political transition in Burma, from military dictatorship to a democratic open society. The UNLD believes that Democracy is the only form of sustainable governance which guarantees both individual citizens and national and cultural collectivities in Burma the rights of full participation in the development of social, economic, and cultural resources available to all citizens of the Union. Enduring democracy therefore requires the active participation of all the citizens — as individual citizens and as members of an ethnic-cultural collectivity — to build and renovate not only the democratic institutions but also the structure of the Union itself, which shall balance the different interests of nationalities for the common good of all member states of the Union.

As the UNLD believe in democratic principles and the rights of full participation of all nationalities in the process of nation rebuilding, the UNLD demands dialogue as an integral part of the political transition, not only in the process of power transformation from military rule to a democratically elected body, but also in the entire process of democratization, which includes the restructuring of the Union into a federal system. Therefore, in the processes of both power transformation and democratization, dialogue must be the main instrument for bringing all individual citizens and collective members of nationalities of the Union together at all levels.

After the general election in 1990, the UNLD believed that at least two levels of dialogue might be necessary to achieve the goal of the creation of democratic open society and the establishment of a genuine Federal Union. The first step of dialogue is for power transformation, and the second step, which is more important than the first level, will be for the entire process of democratization and the restructuring of the Union into a federal system. The UNLD also believes that since the NLD had received the trust of the people in a landslide victory of the 1990 election, a dialogue for “transformation of power” should be a dialogue between the NLD led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military junta, the de fecto government of present Burma. However, the nature of such dialogue at the first level must focus only on the transition of state powers into a democratically elected body. In other words, it will be a dialogue for administrative power but not for legislative power or constitutional matter. The core of dialogue at that level therefore is just for a “breakthrough” of political stagnation, which have created a number of political and social crises in today Burma.

The UNLD strongly believes that political crisis in Burma today is not just a conflict between dictatorship and democracy. It involves an unmanaged and neglected conflict, including a civil war that has consumed many lives and resources of the country for five decades. The root of civil war in Burma is the conflict over power-sharing between the central government, which so far has been controlled by one ethnic group called Myanmar or Burman, and all National States of the Union. In other words, the root of the problem is, as mentioned already, a constitutional problem or more specifically, the rights of self-determination for non-Burman nationalities who joined the Union as equal partners in 1947. Indeed, most nationalities in Burma are now fighting for rightful self-determination and autonomous status of their respective National States within the Union. Since they were not able to resolve their problems through dialogue, they have no choice but to attempt! to solve their disputes through violent means of civil war.

In order to avoid further bloodshed and violence during the political transition, the UNLD believes that the second level of dialogue must start almost simultaneously with the first level of dialogue. The aim of dialogue at the second level is to solve the entire political crisis in Burma and to end five long decades of civil war through the creation of a genuine Federal Union. The UNLD believes that without a genuine Federal Union there is no means of ending the civil war in Burma. Without ending the civil war, there is no means of establishing a democratic system either. Thus, the participation of all ethnic nationalities in the political transition is the most important element in the entire process of democratization and restructuring the Union into a federal system. They all have the right to participate in this important process of restructuring the Union. Thus, dialogue at that level must no longer be a two-way dialogue but a Tri-partite dialog! ue, which shall include three forces, namely the forces composed of the non-Burman nationalities, the democratic forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military junta.

(b) The Need for a National Convention

On June 29 to July 2, 1990, the UNLD held its conference at the YMCA Hall in Rangoon. At that conference, all the members of the UNLD unanimously adopted a policy on national convention that states that in order to lay down the general guidelines of a federal constitution which will serve as the foundation on which to build a new democratic society for the future Federal Union, a National Consultative Convention shall be convened, similar to the Panglong Conference. As UNLD had adopted from the start a policy for the restoration of “internal peace and tranquility through dialogue,” it was envisaged that such a National Consultative Convention will ensure peace, unity and equality for all nationalities of the Union. Alternatively, it could be said that the National Consultative Convention would serve as a kind of peace talks aiming at ending the civil war, which had consumed many lives and the country’s resources for five decades.

The UNLD consulted issue of the National Consultative Convention with the NLD, the winner of the general election in 1990. On August 29,1990, the UNLD and the NLD made a joint declaration known as Bo Aung Kyaw Street Declaration. Some of the points included in this declaration were:

(i) After the emergence of the Pyithu Hluttaw (Union Assembly or Federal Parliament), this Hluttaw shall form the elected government at the earliest time, then the Pyithu Hluttaw shall organize to convene a “National Consultative Convention” consisting of the representatives from all the nationalities, and other personages that are deemed necessary to take part in this convention. This convention shall lay down general guidelines for the Constitution of the Union. The Pyithu Hluttaw shall draw up, approve, and enact the constitution of the Union in compliance with above general guidelines.

(ii) All nationalities shall have full rights of equality, racially as well as politically, and, in addition to having the full rights of self-determination, it is necessary to build a Union with a unity of all the nationalities which guarantees democracy and basic human rights.


In this paper, I have argued that the democratic movement in Burma since1962 was the continuation of the federal movement led by the SCOUHP in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the same time I have highlighted the fact that the role of the UNLD in the struggle for democracy and federalism is the continuation of a political role undertaken by the SCOUHP in the federal movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The only difference between the SCOUHP and the UNLD is neither the policy nor the goal, but the political situation. In the early 1960s, the Federal Movement was seen mainly as a separatist movement by the majority ethnic Burmese (Burman). Thus, the non-Burman nationalities under the leadership of the SCOUHP did not receive enough support from their fellow citizens, the Burman majority. At the Taunggyi Conference, for instance, three delegates who belonged to U Nu’s Party were against the move for the formation of a genuine federal union, despite the ! fact that they all were non-Burman politicians.

By contrast, the movement for federalism is now seen as the movement for equality. The UNLD non enjoys strong support from all the democratic forces in Burma, especially the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) headed by Dr. Sein Win, the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), the National Democratic Fronts (NDF), the All Burma Students’ Democratic Fronts (ABSDF), and other democratic forces. They all agree that the ultimate goal of democratic movement in Burma is the establishment of a genuine federal union, where all indigenous nationalities can live peacefully together. This unity in the same policy is the best hope not only for the UNLD but also for the future of the entire Federal Union of Burma.


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By Mandy Sadan, SOAS, London University

I have been asked to make some comments on the subject of historical and societal dimensions of ethnic issues in Burma. This is no easy thing to do, not least because both of these subjects are vast in themselves. When we consider the broader historical and societal relations that minority ethnic communities have had with the Burmese centre, as well as with each other and in their internal dynamics, we can see that the limited range of communities represented here today are in themselves very complex and diverse historical and societal entities. In this case, to what extent is it even possible to define what common ethnic issues might be at a historical and societal level? There are multiple centres, and multiple peripheries, and many intersecting vectors of historical and societal experience. When we compare the history of the Mon peoples with that of the Naga peoples on the north-western borders with India, is it possible to talk about a common societal or ethnic historical experience, and, if so, to what extent can this then be transposed to an analysis of contemporary ‘issues’? Are there commonalities in the social relations of Kachin and Rakhine polities historically with the Burmese state, or should we pay more attention to the specificities of each situation, which privilege the distinctiveness of particular groups and perhaps force us to think of other qualifying terms than ‘ethnicity’ alone?

Of course, at a contemporary political level it is perhaps easier to construct ‘ethnic issues’ as being derived from relatively homogeneous experiences. We can conceive that there is a political centre in relation to various peripheries, and the policies of that centre towards those peripheries are relatively common and have common effects; indeed, much of the present political analysis of Burma and its ‘minorities’ is predicated on this kind of analytical polarisation. Even at a societal level, the politicisation of minority cultures, for example, can perhaps be understood primarily through contemporary socio-political experiences effected by policies introduced by the Burmese state. Thus we can with good reason compare the impact that the promotion of Burmese language and culture in the state education system, and the inhibition on formal minority language tuition in schools, can have across all groups; we can consider the inhibition on teaching the histories of minority communities at high-school level and the censorship of higher degrees on these subjects as common ‘ethnic’ issues; the Buddhification of non-Buddhist cultures and the Burmanisation of Buddhist ones might also be illuminated best by this centre-periphery paradigm; similarly the responses shown to these societal issues by ethnic nationalist organisations, such as the reification of notions of ethnic category, the standardisation of expressions of internal group cultural diversity, internal ‘ethnic’ socio-cultural debates relating to language, history and social difference, the re-interpretation of the meaning of ethnonymic labels used to identify ethnic categories, and the way that ethnic minority community social memory seems generally to be enframed by a nationalist agenda, all seem to reflect that there is a common experience that could be labelled ‘ethnic’.
Yet these issues relating to ‘ethnic’ histories and societies are the end of the road when it comes to the more difficult problem posed here, which relates to understanding historical and societal dimensions of ethnic issues rather than just their contemporary manifestations. Ever since the 1980s, when Robert Taylor wrote his influential article questioning the prescriptive ethno-political model of the Burmese state, the role that notions of ‘ethnicity’ should play in political discourse, and in political negotiation, has been contested. [1] One argument charges that ethnicity is a fallacious construct which impedes the true expression of historical and societal relations between the ‘so-called’ ethnic groups and their Burman neighbours. This is usually considered a position that ultimately assists the expansion of Maha Bamar. Another position, typically voiced by opposition groups frustrated by the discontinuity and incoherence of multiple ‘ethnic’ voices, even when supposedly in concert, questions how it might be that underlying concepts of ‘ethnic identity’ might be transcended or rendered neutral in the rhetoric of opposition. It is the contention of this paper that both of these positions are ultimately flawed. In the first case, historical propositions on the irrelevance of ethnicity tend to be extrapolated from a limited set of geographical and historical experiences to a much broader historical and geographical stage, which coincides with territory to which the modern Burmese state lays claim. In the latter case, the desire to transcend notions of ethnic identity as a rhetorical tool in political discourse underestimates the degree to which this can only happen when there is fuller recognition of the historical and societal complexity of these communities, when they feel secure enough in the protection of key facets of ethnic identity within the state (for example, language, pluralistic constructs of state history etc.) for these issues not to present themselves as foci of political discourse. This latter issue obviously requires an engagement with the historical and societal complexity of each of these ethnic formulations separately. Furthermore, nationalist ethnic organisations themselves will only reluctantly relinquish some of their prescriptive interpretations of ethnic identity, and their controlling definitions of the domain of social memory, when recognition of diversity within categories does not make them feel vulnerable to internal fragmentation and ‘divide and rule’ by an aggressive state.

There are no easy answers to any of these problems and ultimately they can be found only in very detailed research relating to different historical and societal formations in diverse geographical regions, which is obviously more the concern of academia than that of NGOs and other donors gathered here today. However, NGOs and other donors can assist in this process by recognising the impact that homogenising discourses relating to ethnicity, as well as to simplified accounts of specific ethnic categories, can have in perpetuating this dilemma. This is perhaps most pertinent in the present situation where many donors are revising their approach to funding, and are looking for opportunities to fund projects inside Burma, rather than just on her borders. In this situation, funding ‘the ethnic minorities’ is perhaps relatively easier to accommodate as it appears less vulnerable to manipulation from the central regime as in some cases minority communities even lay claim to an independently constituted and functioning notion of civil society. Where funding is to be given in this way, it would seem essential from what has been said that donors avoid a simplified rhetoric in relation to particular groups, avoid tokenism as their funding strategies are realigned, and encourage those projects which both address issues of historical and societal diversity at a sub-category level in ways which are both engaged yet sensitive to fears of fragmentation.

The rest of this paper, therefore, will attempt to show how it was historically that notions of ethnic category were transmitted to the political centre and became fixed as simplifying and homogenising labels. This will be done by considering one category label in particular, ‘Kachin’, as this relates to my own research. Following this, the historical impact of inappropriate NGO activity on the Kachin community in the past will be considered. This activity promoted a discourse of ‘development’ without proper engagement with the societal formulation of Kachin communities in relation to health care. This continues to have an impact today on the reception of HIV/Aids programmes, and shows how our contemporary discourses on these issues, however well-meaning, can sometimes resonate differently to what we might expect.

The historical transmission of labels of ethnic category to the Burmese political centre
One reason why it is so difficult to progress the political aspects of ethnic issues in Burma relates to how the historical nature of ‘ethnic’ relations with the Burmese state have been problematized, as mentioned previously. The fact that the experience of British colonialism effected significant changes to ‘ethnic’ relations in Burma does not seem to be too controversial a proposition.

It is usually stated that it was the colonial period that transformed what were principally societal formations into ethnic categories predicated upon western notions of race, and that these ethnic categories had new political implications in the colonial Burmese state. This interpretation of the transformation of ethnicity from a societal to a political entity fixed into geographic domains, sometimes leads to the argument that the modern ethno-political state is pure artifice, and that, therefore, its associated ethno-political categories are just an invention of the British administration. This is certainly the position adopted by those who support the consolidation of Maha Bamar. However, it is clearly not this simple when we recall that the ethnic category labels themselves (as well as many of their primary ethnographic associations with respect to notions of civilisation and so on) were acquired by the British administrators and military officers in the first instance from contact with the Burmese court. [2] The notion of social and geographic domains occupied by ‘other’ was not invented by the British, nor even, it would appear, did it develop in the colonial state very gradually over time. Rather they seem to have become consolidated fairly rapidly after the first associations with the Burmese court at the outset of the new colonial era in Burma. Their later development involved modifications and additions to these category labels, rather than their abandonment or large scale readjustment. One of the principle changes effected by the colonial period, therefore, was not the invention of the labels themselves, nor even the drawing of an ethnographic map of this region, but the political implications of the reimagination of ethnic category within new political contexts — how people understood these labels, how they used them in social, historical and political discourse, and how they related to them as internal or external identifiers. This cognitive aspect is very important and is rarely taken into account when we look at the political map and still requires a great deal more detailed research before we can fully understand the significance of this for the development of ‘ethnicity’ in the British colonial state.

However, by picking up a highly partial notion of ethnic category from the Burmese centre, the triangulation of the discourse ‘ethnic’ problem from a historical perspective began. The colonial authorities could claim in their development of the political ethnic state to be simply reifying the realities of social formation ‘on the ground’ into a political and administrative structure. However, the nationalist Burmese state could declare that the political structure was a colonial fabrication — many of these categories did not represent polities historically, just social groupings, and where they were clearly identifiable as polities such as in the Mon and Rakhine case, they could be categorised as ‘former’ rather than ‘present’ entities, or ‘related but subservient’ polities as in the Shan case. Either way, they should not automatically be privileged by autonomous political status in a centralised independent Burma. These constructions have been fiercely contested by the respective ethnic nationalist movements of these peoples. For their part, ethnic nationalist leaders adhered to the labels that had been adopted by the colonial state for the advantages that they offered in the political sphere, whilst knowing that at a societal and cognitive level that there were serious discrepancies between these labels and the internal formation and dynamics of the particular categories they stood for. If the imminent prospect was of political autonomy, then to some extent this lack of understanding of the real nature of these categories by the state did not matter. Tehse communities had, of course, long been familiar with this need to accommodate themselves to the construction that ‘other’ made of them in relations with both the Burman and non-Burman polities with whom they came into contact. However, where autonomy was denied, this assimilation to an overly-simplified construction of ethnic category created internal problematics relating to how the homogenising category should, or could, reflect complexity at a sub-category level without succumbing to fears of fragmentation.

An example can be given of how the ethnic category ‘Kachin’was transmitted to the political centre in the colonial state. First direct contact with substantial numbers of ‘Kachin’ chiefs and elders began in the 1820s and was relatively extensive by the 1830s. However, it was not long before the governmental archive recorded accounts from local ‘Kachin’ elites in which they contested use of this term. The term that they most commonly sought to privilege instead was Singpho, a variant pronunciation of Jinghpaw (usually transcribed during the colonial period as Chingpaw or Chinghpaw). The term Jinghpaw, and historically that of Singpho, relates to the largest of the modern Kachin subgroups, and is deemed to constitute a matrix of lineages which together form affinal kinship relationships. It also describes the dominant linguistic and cultural space of the Kachin region.

Initially there was a tendency to conflate the terms Kahkyen and Singpho in the colonial archive, but it is also clear that distinctions were made between these two terms as they were transferred to the colonial domain. The 1830s were times of considerable Jinghpaw inter-community rivalry and ‘Singpho’ chiefs, residing from Mogaung westwards to the trans-border region with Assam, utilised the term Kakhyen as a label of alterity in reference to their more easterly kin when in discussion with colonial officials. They apparently assimilated to the intellectual construction of the term Kachin as ‘other’, seemingly aware of and indeed supporting the somewhat derogatory connotations of that term in relation to their more easterly kin to their own advantage. This was a political tactic to advance their claims to status as the political structure of the North East Frontier was being delineated.

Over the course of the next forty years the dramatic development of the Assamese tea industry led to the geo-political separation of those groups labelled Singpho, who came to be considered a minority within India, and those labelled Kachin, a term which was understood solely as a Burma-oriented ethnographic trope. Only by the 1880s, when the separation between the Singpho of Assam and the Kachin of Burma had become an administrative reality for an entire generation of colonial officials, was close enough direct contact established again with Kachin communities in the east and south of the Kachin hills region for them again to proffer their preferred terms of self-reference. However, developments in transcription systems now led to a new orthography for the term previously known as Singpho – Chingpaw — so that the Singpho of Assam and the Chingpaw of Burma appeared in the colonial archives as relating to two different ethnicities with supposedly ‘different’ names. What had commenced as a linguistic and administrative confusion had become consolidated as a political, geographic and ethnographic fact.

As the British colonial administration established itself in skeleton form in this region, the term Kachin remained as a functioning general administrative category but it came to have far wider connotations than the Jinghpaw communities to whom it had originally been applied as more hill-dwelling communities were brought within its administrative orbit. Greater contact, however, merely led to the emergence of a series of ethnic appendages to the label Kachin, and the development of a series of sub-groups based on an ethnographic distinction of hill dwelling as opposed to lowland dwelling communities.
Sub-categories of Kachin began to be formalised after 1895, following the ‘pacification’ of the Kachin Hills and the implementation of the Kachin Hills Regulation. Some sub-categories were framed linguistically and were consolidated by the need to develop criteria for the categorisation of communities in the official census. Language was interpreted in this context as a signifier of the primordial ethnic origins of peoples, which was then transposed to an ethnographic present of ‘race’. This classificatory strategy reconfigured the social and historical significance of polyglotism in this region and underestimated its anthropological value.

The military also developed generalised categories of ethnic group, defined by stereotypes of social ‘ethos’ and physical characteristics which were used to delineate suitable recruiting fields and to classify recruits entering the Indian Army. The need to expand recruiting fields from the ‘traditional’ Kachin-designated domain in the environs of Bhamo meant that the first regular Kachin recruits included Jinghpaw, Lisu, Zaiwa and Nung soldiers. Significantly some of these, such as the Nung soldiers, lived beyond the boundaries of the Kachin Hills Regulation and were not, therefore, affiliated to the term Kachin in any other official capacity.

There were, however, some significant ambiguities in this development of Kachin sub-groups: some groups included under the Kachin umbrella by the army or by the administration were separated from it in linguistic classifications. In particular this affected the classification of speakers of other branches of Tibeto-Burman language than Jinghpaw, such as Nung, Maru, and Lisu peoples. Not classified as Kachin by linguistic descent, and thus by implication neither by ethnicity (or ‘race’ as this was interpreted in the colonial state), but called Kachin by the administration and in the army, and thus deemed to possess a certain ethnic ‘ethos’ that was deemed racially grounded, a tension developed in the various applications of the term – whether it referred to one community and one language, many communities but one language, to a geographical place or space and so on. These inconsistencies still have ramifications today because contradictory colonial constructions are used as ‘evidence’ to undermine the multi-group identity Kachin as being no more than a political model.

The new constitution of independent Burma written in 1947 consolidated the term ‘Kachin’ as a primary ethnic category and geo-political boundary. Yet it was in 1947 a constitutionally undifferentiated term juxtaposed straightforwardly with that of ‘non-Kachin’. Paragraph 166 of the 1947 Constitution states that of the 12 seats in the Kachin State Council, 6 are for ‘Kachins’ and 6 are for ‘non-Kachins’. The Minister for the Kachin State was to be ‘Kachin’ but half of his cabinet had to comprise ‘non-Kachins’. Non-Kachins were principally Shan and Burmese communities, whilst the Kachin community was an undefined catch-all for ‘upland other’. Therefore, immediately following independence from the British the term Kachin had a degree of political malleability within the new state.

As the colonial taxonomy of the Kachin ethnic category was neither wholly prescriptive nor wholly consistent, there was still much to be played for in how the ethnic composition of this category should be defined. For example, in 1955 the new administrative unit of North Hukawng in the Myitkyina District was created, which stated that Naga peoples living there were now to be known as ‘Kachin-Nagas’. This would help the state to diminish the authority of predominantly Jinghpaw interests in defining the political agenda of Kachin State, as well as separate these from other Naga communities which were declaring their support of an armed independence movement.  [3] The appellation did not stick, but again demonstrates the elasticity that ethnic categories were deemed to have in the political sphere.

The discrepancy between ‘Kachin’ as an officially sanctioned geography and the term as an ethnonym created difficulties. On the one hand, the creation of a region of Burma known as Kachin State in 1948 seemed to legitimate the claims that Kachin nationalists made concerning their ‘possession’ of this territory if they could consolidate the idea that it also referred to the dominant ethno-political community of this region. This community would therefore expect to have a dominant role to play in the political determination of this region. On the other hand, in being forced to accept the use of the term ‘Kachin’ on the broader political stage of Burma, a tension was created between the local understandings of identity, place, and cross-group relationships of the groups which came under this umbrella and that which the colonial period had structured. Such a tension might not have had much significance if the desired level of local political autonomy from the Burmese centre had been established following independence in 1948. However, as the failure to establish a federal structure in Burma became apparent, and Kachin State was increasingly considered as just the northernmost region of an expanded Burmese state, the problems inherent to the dual usage of the term became apparent.

As the model of the independent national ethno-state was very quickly contested by both military and political ethnic minority groups, defining the specific ethnic as well as geographical boundaries of the term within the state became an increasing concern in the face of what was seen as Burmese nationalist Buddhification policies and geographical redefinitions of ‘Kachin’.

There is also a difficulty relating to historical documentation that could be used to contest some of these simplifying constructions. Some ethnic communities have very substantive and significant historical and literary traditions, such as with the Rakhine, Mon and Shan peoples, but for others who lack longstanding literary traditions, who instead relied upon complex oral and ritual cosmologies of time and space to define their presence, as with the Kachin, it is difficult to find ways of authenticating their historical and societal position in line with the conventions of academic or ‘western’ research discourse. Indeed, even the Shan, Rakhine, Mon and Karen communities find it difficult to construct interpretive parallels between their own historical paradigms expressed through traditional texts and those defined through ‘documentation’ of the kind demanded by political analysts. Without the ‘right kind’ of text-based historical documentation in their own languages by which they can present their own cognitive model of the past, locating some of these communities, such as those termed ‘Kachin’, and determining their historical relations with a Burman centre becomes to a great extent dependent upon the documentation of ‘other’. This raises two principal concerns: 1) establishing the nature of ethnic relations through the historical record of ‘other’ will unduly emphasise the historical integrity of the greater Burmese state, depending as it would do upon Burmese sources to validate and legitimate a ‘Kachin’ historical presence; conversely 2) that by highlighting the relative lack of data concerning the category Kachin, support will be given to the contention that this category as a political and geographical construct is merely an invention of the British colonial period and that it otherwise has no historical validity. Both interpretations are considered highly damaging to political claims for the autonomy of this ethnic category in the present, which are based on the idea that it did in fact function as a discrete political, economic, social, cultural and geographic entity over an extended historical period. Lack of documentation in some cases causes historical discourse to become highly symbolic and centres on ‘proving’ the authenticity of local ethnonyms, of fixing the meaning of ritual or cultural forms in line with contemporary political concerns, and so on. This again seems to create a disjuncture between the historical and societal models of many ethnic categories, which also vindicate the underlying ‘truth’ of these categories, and those demanded by the modern state and western research paradigms.

Ethnic nationalist groups, therefore, in some cases feel somewhat bound to accommodate themselves to these representations in the political sphere, which employed generalizing labels, whilst the underlying societal and historical realities of their groupings, as well as their internal structures and dynamics, remained largely unpacked by the intellectual apparatus of both the pre-colonial colonial and post-colonial state. It is no coincidence that simplified cultural representations of ethnic category on the state stage, such as on Union Day, continue to be the main referent towards a notion of this societal and historical complexity, but without the implications of this ever being explored.

We can see from the above, therefore, that the notion of ethnic category was transmitted to the political centre, and became a tool of political discourse, predicated upon a very simplistic set of societal and historical relationship. This in turn both concealed and inhibited meaningful interpretations of sub-category diversity and contributed to the notion of diversity being equated with fears of fragmentation in times of conflict.

Funding initiatives and development discourse in the Kachin Hills in the 1930s

Given that talking about ‘ethnic minorities’ as a homogeneous group becomes more difficult in this analysis has led some to say that a broader historical contextualisation of ethnic issues is unnecessary  as it merely complicates the principal political objectives of the moment. Whilst there is certainly a logic to this position in some respects, as stated, the danger of this approach is that it tends to undermine the desire of many of these groupings themselves for fuller recognition of their historical presence in Burma, for an acknowledgement that they have substantive histories deserving of full consideration. Recognising this wherever possible is a step towards overcoming the simplification of  so-called ‘ethnic’ issues in the political and public sphere. Many of the issues that we use to mark our concern for the ‘ethnic dimension’ of Burma’s situation today — environmental concerns, forced migration and resettlement, land rights, militarization, the epidemiology of transmittable diseases – are rarely discussed in this way, even though they have historical contexts or historical precedents that could indeed help to illuminate our contemporary approaches. HIV/AIDS is a case in point. On the one hand, this issue seems so undeniably contemporary, global public awareness of the illness coinciding more or less with the 1988 uprising, that its epidemiology seems rightly to act as a marker of the dire socio-political and socio-economic situation of many marginal communities in Burma in recent years. For example, appalling HIV/AIDS statistics are often referenced iconically in discourses relating to Kachin State as a symptom of its desperate social and economic condition. Yet even this issue should perhaps not be so disconnected from a broader historical perspective. Discourses about sexual health have a relatively long history in the Kachin Hills region. Historical discourses on syphilis promoted throughout the 1920s and 1930s were similarly related to notions of development, to the apparent political disengagement of Kachin youth, and to the introduction of inappropriate social welfare initiatives. However, what is perhaps even more noteworthy in comparison with our present discourses, is that these health concerns and initiatives tended always to surface at times of key political transition,  such as in 1937 when Burma was separated from India, and immediately after the second war when they figured in debates on the state of the Kachin region leading up to independence. Significantly, these discourses, which stated that the Kachin peoples were about to die out because of what was deemed a degenerating social framework, became implicated in the interpretive apparatus used to support the notion that the Kachin peoples were not yet ready to govern themselves in an independent state. At a societal level also, the campaigns and, crucially, the discourses associated with them,  had a marked impact on important aspects of Kachin social organisation, on traditional gender roles in some localities, and they continue to be significant in the contemporary historical imagination relating to notions of development as constructed by church sermons and the receptivity towards condom use. Even with an irrefutably contemporary issue such as the spread of HIV/AIDS, we lose significant insight if we do not extend our historical and societal perspective to assess the impact of well-intentioned policies on the communities with which we are dealing, and just as importantly, the way in which we talk about them as well as what we do.

There are a host of terms that we tend to use in relation to ‘ethnic issues’ which are deemed to have either a historical or societal justification. Some of these terms relate to biophysical relationships with the environment, and those such as ‘isolated’, ‘wilderness’, ‘remote’ are particularly prevalent in discourses about minorities. However, we perhaps lack historical awareness if we do not note that in the past these terms became further justifications for the alienation of land rights. The unquestioned perpetuation of such terms also denies the fact that there must scarcely have been a hill or stream in these regions that was not cognitively mapped by the traditional routes and paths of oral culture, by the recitation funeral routes, migration routes and such like, as well as by the detailed ethnobotanical knowledge which gave meaning to the most minor of details in the natural environment. From whom were such communities remote when we see the integration of expansive kinship lineages in cosmological models of space and time spanning from India to China, and have further proof of this integration in regional trade routes by the study of complex material cultures which demonstrate ongoing culture contact? Terms such as ‘traditional’ enter our discourses to demonstrate the challenges that many ethnic cultures face in the contemporary situation, but without appropriate explanation of this term it too often becomes an unrealistic representation of communities that caricatures them in the same way that the Union Day festival does on the state stage. Essentially, therefore, it is very easy to perpetuate discourses about ethnic groups in Burma that are appropriate politically because they are intended ultimately to address a main problem of non-equality, but which over-simplify and in the process do little to assist these communities with dealing with the internal societal and historical dilemmas that are increasingly coming to light as post-ceasefire situations allow some of the problems of nationalist structuring of ethnic categories to come to the surface.

This paper has ranged over a number of issues, none of which has an apparent or easy solution. NGOs and other donors must determine the extent to which they want, or are able, to engage with some of the implications of these comments. However, what is clear is that funding which perpetuates tokenistic approaches to ‘ethnic issues’, a policy which might seem tempting in the present situation when funding initiatives are being hesitantly refocused to projects inside Burma, should be avoided. Where donors are unable to undertake appropriate forms of research themselves for lack of time or resources, they too should be encouraged to cross bridges with the small but growing academic community who are engaged in such research and who would, in many cases, be happy to play a part in the delineation of historical and societal implications of funding projects. Ultimately, both the academic and donor communities must share a joint responsibility to engage with research and development projects that engage with the need to support pluralistic developments within ethnic categories, and not just between them, and do not shy away from some of the complexities and difficulties that might arise as a result.

Conflict And State-Society Dysfunction  

By Dr. Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe

Introduction: The Problem of State-Society Dysfunction           

Especially after the collapse  of Ne Win’s military-socialist Lanzin regime in 1988, the issue of “ethnic conflict” has, it might be said, drawn more attention from both observers and protagonists alike. This is all the more so the case following the unraveling of the socialist bloc and emergence of “ethnic” wars in those hitherto– it was presumed – stable nation-states of the socialist world.

Previously, ethnic-based resistance movements in Burma was perceived by most observers as insurgencies by disgruntled tribal isolates fighting against the modernizing and unifying state [1]. The “ethnic conflict” problem was not seen as being integral to the larger, more basic problem that revolves around the “lack of fit” between the military monopolized state (since 1962) and broader society. That there was dysfunction in state-society relation in Burma is now recognized, but the ethnic dimension of state-society dysfunction has not however been fully appreciated.   

In fact, resistance of societal segments especially that which was ethnic-based —  which constitutes an important dimension of state-society dysfunction — was looked upon as obstructions to modernization and/or national integration and development. [2]  Ethnic-based resistance was until recently condemned not only by the new (post-colonial) states, but also by their respective external or foreign “patrons and mentors” (governments and academics) as reactionary tribal hold-outs, an impediment to the laudable nation- and state-building efforts, the integrating or unifying imperatives, of the modern state and leaders. Often, ethnic resistance movements were believed to be or were portrayed by ruling regimes as instruments of external (or as the case may be, imperialist) powers or agents. Contributing to the confusion was a situation where cold-war protagonists were not above encouraging, if not formenting, ethnic discontent and rebellion in order to destabilize the client state of the rival power.    

Ethnic Conflict in Burma: Some Basic Definitions    

Even today, when it is recognized that the “ethnic rebellions” in are part of Burma’s state-society dysfunction problem, there remains some confusion regarding the nature of “ethnic” conflict. One current perspective, one might say, sees the “ethnic” conflict in Burma in terms of ethnic minorities fighting for democratic rights or cultural-identity rights, or equal opportunity, like the blacks and other minorities in the United States and elsewhere. Even Burma’s ethnic non-Burman groups [3] and leaders – at least some of them – have, one might say, been drawn into this “minority rights, equal opportunity” paradigm. Some ethnic leaders and activists have even ventured in the field of “indigenous peoples” , i.e., defining themselves as “indigenous people”, although the term refers to native peoples (the aboriginals), those marginalized and displaced by white settlers and their state and the system of monetarized markets (i.e., modern economy) that the settlers brought with them and imposed. The use of the term “indigenous peoples” in the Burma context is odd because all ethnic segments, including the Burmans, are indigenous.

The ethnic non-Burman segments of Burma – especially the Shan, Kachin, Karenni, Chin, Rakhine, — are not ethnic minorities, nor are they indigenous peoples. As will be clarified and shown in the passages below, they — like the Burmans – are peoples or nations. They moreover have had the experience of administering themselves, albeit under British supervision, for five or more decades. [4] They also had, like the Burmans, their own history, or rather, a sense of history, of being significant political actors in ancient times. In their own states or home territories – clearly demarcated — they in fact comprised the majority, and the Burmans the minority. Because of their role as co-founders of the Union of Burma, by virtue of the 1947 Panglong Accord, the ethnic non-Burman nationalities consider themselves the founding nations of the country, and have used the term, ethnic nationalities or nationalities [5] to refer to themselves collectively, rather than as ethnic minorities.     

In this paper, it is maintained that Burma’s “ethnic conflict” is not per se ethnic, nor that of the kind faced by indigenous peoples of, for example, North America, but political in a very fundamental way. The conflict is political in the sense that the although it is also about ethnic identity and rights, and about democracy, equal opportunity, and all that, it is also – in fact, in essence — about nation-building and state-building. It involves political fundamentals as how a nation is to be built (or rather defined), by whom, in what direction, and it has much to do with problems and conflict arising from the application by the state or a set of power-holders of a certain or a particular brand of nationhood, nation-building formula. This paper will also look at the general outline of the conflict, focusing on the conceptual context of it, and it will also look at the options, and particularly the difficulties that have to be recognized and taken into account in resolving “ethnic conflict” problem in Burma.

This paper stresses that in regard to nation-building in independent Burma, the first foundation stones were laid in 1947 when the Panglong Accord was signed in Shan State between U Aung San, the supreme of the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League), the vanguard of the Burmese nationalist movement, and Shan princes (the chaofa) and Kachin and Chin leaders.

This was the accord that defined the boundaries of present-day Burma. The agreement, and the understanding reached was that they would join together in an alliance to jointly obtain independence (from Britain) and to establish a union of equal and self-determining states – the Union of Burma or “Pyidaung-su”, in Burmese – on the basis of equality. The Burmese word, “Pyidaung-su” means a union of nation-states, implying a federation of states as in other federations.  Federalism, it can be said, is embedded in the Burmese term for the post-1948 Union of Burma. Since Panglong was a historically defining moment, the genesis of the present Burma, the Accord and the Spirit underlying the Accord – the Panglong Spirit – is, one might say, politically hegemonic.  Even the successive ruling generals who have done much violence to the ideals of Panglong have nonetheless to pay lip-service to the Panglong Spirit, to the notion of equality between what they term “national races”.     

British Colonial Rule and the Making of Burma in 1947

Like all  nation-states that emerged after the withdrawal or eclipse of colonial powers – India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and so on – Burma was (or is) basically  the child (or the creation) of the colonial order. Prior to the advent of colonial powers — who re-arranged the territories that came into their hands, making them into “modern” entities which later became post-colonial nation-states — Burma in its present form did not exist.  There were what modern historians recorded as Burmese (or Burman) kingdoms that existed side by side with Mon, Shan, Rakhine, Manipuri, Thai, Lao, and Khmer kingdoms, and which were often in conflict with one another.  Wars, both dynastic (intra-kingdom) and inter-kingdoms, were endemic. These kingdoms were not territorial nor were they based on ethnic sentiments or solidarity. They were not national kingdoms but dynastic or personal system of power and domination. [6]

In the final British annexation in 1885, [7] the Burmese king and court had very little, or no control over  territories north of the capital, Mandalay.  Moreover, an alliance of Shan princes – the Limbin Confederacy – was poised to march onto the capital to overthrow King Thibaw (whose mother was Shan, the Hsipaw Princess), and put their candidate, the Limbin Prince, on the throne.  There was, in other words, at that period, no Burmese kingdom to speak of.  A year after the fall of Mandalay, the British met with the Shan princes in Mong Yai and negotiated the inclusion of their princedoms in British India as protectorates (i.e., under the Viceroy of India). [8]

The British then proceeded to make administrative sense of the areas that had come under their control.  They re-organized or rationally re-structured their new possession that lay beyond India – one might say, “farther India” or “British Indochina”.  By the 1930s, British Burma (or British Indochina) was separated from India and organized into two distinct parts: Ministerial Burma – the homeland of the more or less majority Burman ethnic group — and the Frontier Areas. The latter included the present-day Shan, Kachin, and Chin State, and parts of the current Karen and Arakan/Rakhine State. The present Karenni State was treated more or less as a protectorate, and the Wa area was classified as un-administered territory.

Under the British, there was no “Burma”, i.e., in its current form. It might however be argued (and has been by sundry Burman nationalists) that the British purposely divided Burma in accordance with their “divide-and-rule” policy. What can however be said about the “divide-and-rule” argument is that the “divide-and-rule” argument assumes that the population of Burma was (or is) homogenous or had hitherto been unified, in the current sense of the word, as a nation. The nationalist “divide-and-rule” argument is, it might be added, the product of a parochial mind-set that is blissfully ignorant of a practice that is common to all colonial powers. Rather than being moved by the “divide-and-rule” imperative of power – which anti-colonial nationalists attribute to colonial powers – the widely practiced system of direct and indirect rule was based on administrative convenience, itself informed by the economic-commercial viability of the real estate in question. That is to say, areas that were near the seacoast or accessible from the sea, and were fertile, productive, and where transportation infrastructures could be built with low costs, these areas were usually placed under direct rule. Areas in the far interior, where transportation was difficult, or were border or frontier lands, these were ruled through traditional rulers and chiefs, loosely supervised by colonial officers.  In Burma, the Irrawaddy basin constituting the Burman homeland, i.e., Burma Proper, was directly ruled, exploited, and thus became developed or more or less modernized. The Frontier Areas were left to their rulers and chiefs, and were benignly  neglected, and became less developed than the directly ruled areas.   

British Burma or “British Indochina” was, like French Indochina, a hodge-podge of expedient  administrative arrangements, and it was this patchwork collection of differently administered and differently developed territories that became, after the 1947 Panglong Accord, the Union of Burma.

The Nation-Building Formulas and the Rise of the Military

Concerning the thinking of Burma’s post-independence leaders and rulers – predominantly Burman – on nation-building, there can be discerned three major streams. One stream, formulated by or associated with U Aung San, the architect of independence, held that independent Burma was to be one based on equality of all national groups and states, on the principle of “unity in diversity”, and self-determination (implying the widest of autonomy for the units or members of the union). This was the vision that led to the signing of the Panglong Accord in 1947, a year before independence was obtained.

The second stream was one that was adopted by the post-Aung San AFPFL leaders. This vision was embodied in the 1947 Union Constitution. It provided for a unitary form of state, one which was de-centralized to some degree, but not federal.  The relation among the members was asymmetrical: there was the Mother country, Pyi-Ma – the Burma State – and around it revolved a set of subordinate constituent states. The relation of, for example, the Shan State to the Burma (or Burman) State, the Mother State, was similar to one between Scotland or Wales and New Westminister (England).  In concept it can be said that there was in Burma, seven Scotland or Wales revolving around Rangoon. [9]

The third stream was a fascistic, chauvinistic one. It held that the Burmans had built an empire through defeating and conquering the lesser “races” [10] – the Mons, Rakhine, Shan, Karen, and so on. In this formula, Burma had been unified by force since the 11th century by great Burman conquer-kings: Anawratha, Bayinnaung, Alaungphaya, Bodawpaya, and so on. According to this nationhood vision, the British forcibly dismembered this unified kingdom, and through the divide-and-rule policy, further alienated the hitherto unified “races” of Burma from each other.

From this perspective, one that is held by the military and successive ruling generals, nationhood and nation-building was not a problem: All national “races” would be kept together by a strong state, and nationhood or unity achieved through assimilation into the Burman mainstream. Cultural and ethnic diversity was deemed as dangerous and undesirable because they were divisive. Unity or the solidarity of the Union must therefore be maintained and safeguarded by a vanguard body – the military or the armed forces —  lest the country falls apart, or become a chaotic arena of warring “races”, as in Bosnia. [11]  

The second stream, the post-Aung San AFPFL’s (or U Nu’s) unitary but decentralized nation-building formula – as represented by the 1947 Constitution — gained ascendancy and was in force for almost 12 years, from 1948 to 1962. This national unity formula was certainly not in keeping with the Panglong Spirit nor the vision of U Aung San. Nonetheless, it worked after a fashion until it was replaced in 1962 by the military’s (and Ne Win’s) fascistic-chauvinistic nation-building formula.

Until the 1962 military coup, although the Shan, Kachin, and other ethnic nationalities leaders found the 1947 Constitution unsatisfactory, they went along with this arrangement, because they were assured in 1947 that the constitution could be amended at any time in the future. Also, the fact that independent Burma right away became a battleground between the AFPFL government and its erstwhile allies — the Red and White Flag communist, the People’s Volunteers Organization/PVO, and Burman army mutineers, and later, Karen army mutineers and PaO rebels (in Shan State) – gave the Shan, and the ethnic non-Burman leaders very little options, but to stand with the AFPFL, or rather with, or behind U Nu. The alternative was communist victory or revolution.  

In many ways, the armed struggle led by the communists and their allies strengthen ties between the leaders and governments of the ethnic nationalities and the AFPFL.  However, at the same time, the insurgencies – Burman (communists and leftists) and Karen (and their ethnic allies, the PaOs and the Mons) – bolstered the importance of the military to the extent that as the 1960s approached, it had become very powerful and gained much autonomy.  Also, the incursions of American-backed Chinese Guomindang (nationalist) irregulars in eastern Shan State further reinforced its power and autonomy. In fighting the insurgencies and the Guomindang irregulars, the military, i.e., the army, also took on administrative functions in areas where martial law was declared or imposed.

Moreover, the split of the ruling AFPFL party into two camps and many factions which occurred in 1957 further strengthened the position and autonomy of the military. The split created a power vacuum at the very top, and it was only a matter of time before the military ventured onto the political stage, and this it did in 1958. The then Prime Minister, U Nu, was requested by the military – specifically Brigadiers Aung Gyi and Tin Pe — to hand over power, albeit  temporarly, to the army so that the political confusion stemming from the AFPFL split could be sorted out. U Nu agreed, and with the sanction of parliament, the military ruled as a caretaking government for two years. In 1960, the caretaking military government held an election as promised, which U Nu won overwhelmingly on an anti-military, anti-military platform, in addition to promising to make Buddhism the state/official religion. In 1962, however, the military marched back to the summit of power, and has ruled Burma ever since.

Nation-Building by Ne Win and the Military

As mentioned, the military vision of national unity, its national-building formula, was fascistic, chauvinistic, narrow, exclusive. This formula dovetailed nicely with its vision of state-society relation, which was top-down and informed by a command-and-control orientation. The military’s fascistic view of nationhood and tightly controlled state-society relation may be owed to the Japanese influence since the army was trained by the Japanese during World War II, and Ne Win, its commander (and military dictator, 1962-1988), was (and is) known to be an a social misfit and a near-psychopath. [12] Under Ne Win’s command, the fascistic, chauvinistic vision of nationhood became entrenched within the military.

Also as mentioned, owing to the outbreak of insurgencies at the onset of independence, the military (or the army) was at once brought to the forefront as defenders of the new state – the AFPFL state. This role garnered for the army and its top brass substantial power. Moreover, because the military’s political masters – the AFPFL leaders – were dependent on the army to fend off dangerous challengers, particularly the Burman communists and allies, it also gained, in addition to greater power, greater autonomy as well. In other words, the military before long became a power unto itself.

In a conflict situation where the military could, as it were, write its own ticket, and came to see itself as the vanguard-defender of the nation, it took on the task of nation-building according to its notion of nationhood.

It can be said that what was of utmost concern to the military as self-acclaimed “nation-builders” was Chapter X of the 1947 Constitution. This provision granted Shan State the the right of secession after 10 years of union.  The military therefore set out to pre-empt the Shans from exercising  their right of secession. This it did by sowing terror to subjugate and cow the populace on the one hand, and on the other hand, it formented opposition in Shan State to the Shan princes (chaofas), who the military accused of hatching plots to dismember the Union, i.e., taking Shan State out of the Union.  Everywhere the military went in the Shan country, it impressed on the population its brutal power – beating, killing, pillaging, raping at will. [13]  And as 1958 drew nearer, it resorted to beating and torturing heads of villages, accusing them of hiding arms in preparation for an armed rebellion. Also, elsewhere in other non-Burman areas, the military set out to terrorize the local populace in order to make it clear to them who were superior, who were the master, who “owned” the country – i.e., conceptually, the Burman, but actually, Burmans in military uniform.

Thus, the military’s nation-building efforts created a situation where the non-Burman segments of the population was alienated by military actions from the state. The state came to be perceived by the ethnic non-Burmans as alien to society and harmful to its welfare. The situation of “lack of fit” between the state and the ethnic non-Burman segments, and the policy of terror (systemic atrocities) naturally provided ethnonationalist elements in the non-Burman states and areas with fertile ground to recruit followers for their resistance armies.   

The military’s nation-building formula and the brutal methods it employed in this regard, rather than promote a sense of nationhood among diverse ethnic groups, created a situation of vertical conflict – or dysfunction —  between the state and the ethnic non-Burman segments, which constituted a significant part of broader society.

To compound the problem of state-society dysfunction, the military seized of power in 1962. The coup-makers justified their seizure of power , followed three months later by the massacre of university students in Rangoon, on July 7th, alienated the Burman population segment from the new military regime. Further imposition by the military and its regime of repressive control in all spheres of human activities and the closing of all exchange mechanism or communication channels between the state and broader society, and the military’s monopolization of power, turned the Burman populace against the military and the “socialist” state, monopolized by the military.

The problem of state-society dysfunction was further exacerbated in 1988 when the military staged a bloody comeback following the collapse of Ne Win’s military  dictatorship, i.e.,  the military-socialist BSPP (Burmese Socialist Program Party) regime. [14]

The Politics of National Reconciliation   

State-society relation in Burma has since 1962 been dysfunctional – dysfunctional because the relation is in a one-way direction, from military power-holders monopolizing the power structures of the state at the top, to broader society below. The state is not responsive to the interest, needs, and preference of societal elements and forces. It is responsive only to the interest, preference, and needs of the armed, uniform elements within the state.  In other words, we have a situation where the state is “separated” and politically insulated and isolated from society – to both the Burman and ethnic non-Burman segments. Or in other words, the state in Burma cannot be considered as being part of society, conceptually speaking,.

The consequence of state-society dysfunction is, as the past thirty and more years have shown, economic decay, the atrophy of all political institutions, the corruption of the military, the paralysis of the state (or, importantly, its problem-solving capability), the breakdown of all service infrastructures and systems, greater impoverishment, and so on. And in the face of societal demands for political space and autonomy, and the military’s resistance, and further repression, the result is a political deadlock.  In the meantime, problems that could have been resolved are exacerbated through the incapacity of neglect of the highly autonomous or unresponsive state, and they are becoming almost un-resolvable.

The pressing need today in Burma is resolve the state-society dysfunction problem.  The state and broader society together form a single national entity, i.e., a country, a nation, a nation-state. As such, the task of re-integrating the state with society, so that the state serves society and reflects the interests and preference of society and forces within it, constitutes a major task of any national reconciliation agenda.

Re-integrating state and society is much easier said than done especially where it concerns Burma, owing to the history of repressive violence visited upon the people, especially in the ethnic non-Burman home territories by the military. One unfortunate result of this is that military personnel are perceived by the victimized ethnic non-Burmese populace as Burmans, i.e., “Burman” first, “soldier” second.. As in all war situation, where there is armed combat – a zero-sum situation – it is inevitable that the enemy will be identified by their ethnic labels.

The ethnic dimension of state-society dysfunction has therefore two facets. One is political, and the other is perception which is ethno-nationalistic, as mentioned above. The political facet concerns the constitutional problem that hinges on the question of how is the relation between the constituent units to be ordered, namely, whether Burma should be a unitary or federal.

By Dr. Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe
Paper, prepared for the Burma Donor Forum, January 15-17, 2004, Oslo, Norway.

— Conflict in Burma: Perceptions and History
— Panglong and the Genesis of Modern Union of Burma
— Nation Awareness or Consciousness in the Colonial Years
— Transition or Continuing Stalemate?
— The Conflict and Strategies: One
— The Conflict and Strategies: Two
—  Post Dabayin: New Configuration and a New Game


The conflict in Burma – seemingly going on forever – has generally, if not usually, been  portrayed as “ethnic”. It conjures up a Bosnia scenario where ethnic groups killed each other in bloody wars, or that of a fragile country about to be “balkanized”, i.e., broken into warring ethnic segments were it not for the country’s military rulers. In order to justify its harsh rule, the military regime has diligently played the ethnic-conflict and the balkanization theme which more or less haunts all states and governments of the world.

Looking at Burma, it is conventionally seen as a country of numerous ethnic groups which are mutually hostile and suspicious, and as a country where governments, even military regimes (as at present, and since 1962), have had a very hard time holding it together. From this perspective, unity in Burma looks very fragile, or that the sense of common nationhood is non-existent. This view does seem to justify military rule since the military is, in this argument, the only force capable of preventing the breakup of the country and keeping the 135 “national races” from tearing each other apart.

Contradicting this convention somewhat is the conventional “histories” of Burma, first written by Englishmen in the early 1900s, which portrayed Burma as a “nation” that had been unified by the kings of  Pagan in the late 1000s and early 1100s. Burmese “history” has thus been written (and taught) in terms of nation, national kings, national kingdoms, and national unification.

The conventional paradigm therefore presents two different and very contradictory picture of Burma and its conflict. On the one hand, Burma is said to be a very old nation, already unified and nationally-aware (or conscious of nationhood) even before the nations and nation-states of Europe were. On the other hand, it is portrayed as ethnically divisive and always in danger, like all new nations, of breaking up into ethnic fragments.

An alternative view is that which sees Burma before the period of colonialism (or colonial modernization)  as a series of dynastic kingdoms  and princedoms  which paid tributes, entered into alliances, or fought and sacked each other’s capital city or palaces – in a cycle of violence and wars. These political entities were not national polities nor were they territorially defined, nor ethnically organized or based. The populace were not citizens but were regarded or treated as serfs or servants, or commoners (non-royal), whose labor and productivity were to be exploited by those who ruled. There was no nation-consciousness, and these political entities were the personal estates of whoever were kings, princes, or lord.  This was the politics of pre-colonial  Southeast Asia, as it was elsewhere also in other parts of the world which came under colonial rule and were brought into the modern world by European powers and their colonial machinery.

The expansion of capital from Europe took on the form of colonialism, and in the 1700s and onward, European powers penetrated the rest of the world and endeavored to transform various political-social formations (kingdoms, princedoms, sultanates, etc.) they found and took possession of (directly or indirectly) into modern markets or into administrative-economic structures to serve the needs of modern trade, commerce, and investment, i.e., to make profit.


What is now Burma, or the Union of Burma/Myanmar – the land lying between India and China, and Siam (a French-British buffer zone, which became Thailand) — fell under the British flag in the early- to late-1800s. These areas (which could be termed British Indo-China) consisted of, at the time, the kingdom of Ava (or Burma proper, later Ministerial Burma) which had expanded to include the Rakhine coast in the west, and the Mon area in the south (written, or described in history as the Rakhine and Mon kingdoms). The northern part of Ava was in a state of unrest with Kachin raiding bands running wild. To the east, the Shan princes or Chaofas (sawbwas) had in the 1880s formed a league to put a candidate of their choice, the Limbin prince, on the throne in Mandalay.  The British annexation of Ava and nearby territories was a slow and creeping one. The coastal areas were the first to be annexed, and lower Ava was annexted next (in the 1820s), and the whole annexed only in 1885.

Having occupied the capital Mandalay and taken king Thibaw and the royal family to India, the British administratively and politically  re-arranged the territories it occupied as expedient and convenient.

The easily accessible and fertile Ava kingdom was first ruled as part of Bengal province of India. Later, in the 1920s, it was made into a province of India, and in the 1930s was separated from India, and constituted as a colony – Ministerial Burma —  to be given greater self-government (like India) at a future time.  

The areas north of Mandalay, and to the west, which were thick with  jungle, very hilly and mountainous, and inaccessible, were designated as special zones, or hill-tracts which the British left more or less alone.  To the east of Ava, the British signed treaties with the Shan princes, making them at first the protectorates of the Viceroy of India, and later, in the 1920s. the Shan principalities were formed into or constituted as the Federated Shan States.

Thus, what became Burma, or the Union of Buma, by treaty – the 1947 Panglong Accord – was hitherto not a single country (in pre-colonial times} and was not administered as a single entity by the British either.

The 1947 Panglong Accord is therefore the founding treaty and the foundation of the present-day Burma. The intent – or the spirit – of Panglong was to found a union of national states based on equality and self-determination, i.o.w., federalism.

Therefore, Burma – or the Union of Burma/Myanmar – was/is a new nation-state polity comprising territories and societies that were different, with different cultures, value systems, beliefs, experience, politics and histories, and importantly, different and differing memories, myths, and fables.

It was born in an age where there was instability and revolutions, violence, and over-blown and emotion-charged slogans all around. It was an age where the world was beginning to divide into two ideological camps engaged in a zero-sum struggle for survival and strategic or geopolitical dominance and advantages.

What was important for the young and newly minted Union of Burma was wise leadership, cool heads, sophistication, and a spirit of tolerance and a culture of give-and-take and dialogue, and a deep understanding of how different nations will live in peace and prosperity under one flag.

But such qualities were not strong among the new leaders of the Union. Some were flushed with a sense of victory over their triumph in “driving out both the British and the Japanese (and therefore re-gaining independence)”, some drunk with the wine of ideological purity, and all were filled with apprehension and sharp feelings of insecurity. It was an age of revolution and violence.

As everywhere in the developing world, consciousness of  “nation”  (nationhood and of ethnicity as well) came in Burma only after some years of colonial penetration and rule. The Karen and the Burmese-Burman  were the earliest to become nation-conscious (in the early 1900s). The Karen began demanding representation in the various assemblies that the British introduced in its colony of Burma (or Burma proper, later Ministerial Burma). The Burmese-Burman demanded home-rule and greater autonomy for Burma proper and some Burmese-Burman nationalist politicians even opposed Burma’s separation from India because they thought this would exclude Burma from greater self-governance and autonomy scheme which the British envisioned for India.

Nation-awareness (or consciousness) was heightened in Burma proper in the 1930s,  following the trend in Europe where Italian and German ultra-nationalists leaders and organizations were in ascendance, as was the pan-Asian nationalism of the Japanese. The Japanese invasion and occupation of Burma further heightened nationalist sentiments in two ways:

One, the Japanese granted Burma independence and also encouraged anti-Western and ethnic nationalism (i.e., Burman, Shan, Rakhine, and so on). This fostered and strengthened Burmese-Burman ethnic national sentiments (as well as those of others). As well, the allied appealed to Karen, Kachin, Chin ethno-nationalism as a mobilizing tool against the Japanese.

Two, the Karens were Christian (or were regarded as such) and looked upon as British-loyalist by the Burmese-Burman nationalists (the “Thakin” or Masters) and as well by the Japanese. They were persecuted. Atrocities were committed in Karen towns and villages by some Burman-Burmese militia bands. This fuelled Karen ethnic sentiments and resentment against the Burmese-Burman (i.e., the Thakin nationalists who were mentored by the Japanese).

To further exacerbate the problem, after the war, the British who could no longer maintain overseas colonies, negotiated a settlement with the non-communist faction of the Thakins, which during the war had been mentored by the Japanese. For the Karen, this was a disaster – it was like being thrown at the mercy of a former enemy, who had, besides, lost the war (or their Japanese mentor had). The Karen approached the British for a better deal, and even sent delegations to London, but to no avail.

However, the first serious conflict in post independence Burma was not ethnic in any way, shape, or form.

The Thakin communists and their leftist allies, formerly partners of the moderate Thakins (socialist),  accused the moderates of selling out to the British and declared that independence was a sham. They threatened revolution and soon carried it out, enticing several Burmese-Burman battalions of the Burma Army to mutiny. Rakhine leftist and communist joined in.

The Karens remained loyal to the new government and Karen together with the Chin, Kachin, Shan battalions of the Burma Army defended it against the communists.  But the Karen-Burmese  communal conflict which smoldered throughout the war, burst into flame again. The last straw for the Karen was when the new government and the army dislocated Karen villagers, put them in camps, and attacked Insein, a Karen town near Rangoon. These actions against the Karens compelled the several Karen battalions serving the government to mutiny. (Note: The Insein battle has gone down erroneously in popular history as the siege of Rangoon, the capital, by Karen rebels, and gave rise to the myth that Burma’s hard won independence came to within inches of being lost.)

As the above account of events indicates, conflict and armed resistance or struggle in Burma stem from complex factors and cannot be simply attributed to the politics of ethnicity or to the secession impulse per se of the non-Burman ethnic national groups or the ethnic nationalities.

After Panglong, the country went through two phases of politics, both phases revolving around the question of how the state in Burma would relate to broader society which is  composed of different ethnic segments, living in self-ruling territories, and based on the Panglong Accord and spirit.

In regard to the state-society relation, considering the fact that the new state – the AFPFL (the party of moderate socialist Thakin, see Glossary of Organizations) state – was challenged by its erstwhile allies, the communists and their leftist friends, who had taken up arms, the AFPFL Thakins and leaders did manage to maintain a quite functional state-society relation based on democracy and parliamentary rule.

Despite the civil war and the shaky control of the government over most of the country, political life was healthy and the parliamentary system worked. Over time, state-society relation became more stable, especially in regard to the relation of the ruling AFPFL party with the leaders of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities who managed the affairs of their respective states quite autonomously, within the 1947 constitution framework.

By the late 1950s, the communist armed movement was waning, and many leftist armed groups were “exchanging arms for democracy”. In the Shan State, the PaO armed group led by Thaton U Hla Pe negotiated a settlement with the Shan State government and the Shan State Communist Party gave up the armed struggle. Also, the administrative modernization of the Shan State was being completed, and the Shan princes gave up their hereditary power to the Shan government in 1959, and negotiated with the AFPFL government the terms of compensation so that the princes could pay or continue to support officials who had not be incorporated by the Shan government.

U Nu, the Union Prime Minister for most of the time till deposed by the 1962 military coup of General Ne Win, followed more or less the footstep of U Aung San (the father of the Peace Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leading the democratic opposition movement since 1988). Much credit must be accorded to Aung San for he managed to get his vision of unity and nationhood by non-Burman nationalities leaders, i.e., a nation based on democracy, equality and self-determination for all. Aung San and U Nu were nation-builders, unlike Ne Win, who will be known in history as a nation-destroyer, as will be elaborated in the passages that follows.

As mentioned already, in the armed struggle waged by Burman-Burmese communists to  dislodge the AFPFL, the Kachin, Chin, Shan, and Karenni remained loyal to the government. The Karen were also loyal despite misgivings, and they took up arms only when it seemed that there was no other choice, as already related.  

However, this loyalty was not appreciated or over-shadowed by the anxiety felt by some Thakin elements, especial those serving in the army (the military Thakins), about the right of secession granted the Shan, Karenni and Kachin states in the 1947 Union Constitution. Chapter 10 of the constitution stated that these states could secede from the Union after 10 years.

The fear of possible secession led the military – which played a greater role because of the armed rebellion, and became increasingly involved in administration and politics – to take pre-emptive measures especially in the Shan State. The army suspecting that Shan princes of plotting secession and proceeded to detain, torture, and kill hundreds of village heads who it thought were part of the princely conspiracy. Moreover, the army, predominantly Burmese-Burman, behaved very badly and acted like a conquering army – as it still does today (and which is well-documented)..

The brutal and ill-disciplined behavior of the soldiers in the Shan State, soldiers indoctrinated with ethno-nationalistic Burman sentiments and taught the history of Burmese conquests of other peoples and kingdoms, caused widespread resentment and anger. This tension and friction between the Shan and what they saw and experienced as an army of occupation a counter ethnonationalism – Shan nationalism – which led to the mobilization of dissidents into armed bands, beginning from 1959, to resist the “Greater Burman” (or Burmanization) design of the government. The government, because of its military, came to be looked upon by the Shan as an alien government.

To make matter worse, the ruling AFPFL party split up into two camps and many factions, opening the door to a half-coup in 1958, followed by two years of military rule (as caretakers). At around that time the military has become a powerhouse in itself, owning an economic corporation, several enterprises, a shipping line, and it’s own mass organization (the NSA, the forerunner of the BSPP/Lanzin party and the current USDA). Besides, the Military Intelligence Service was an all-powerful body that was used by Ne Win to watch over his subordinates and the army, and it enjoyed police power (becoming in time a much feared super police body, like the Nazi Gestapo).

The state in Burma thus became more alienated especially from the non-Burman segments of broader society when U Nu, who won the 1960 elections against the military backed-Stable AFPFL party, proceeded to make Buddhism the official or state religion. The Chin and the Kachin, many of whom (the elites especially) were Christians, were outraged. This provided a fertile recruiting ground for those who advocated armed resistance. The Kachin also had another grievance. This was over the handing over of some Kachin border areas to China by the government as a settlement of a border dispute, without proper consultation.

It was in this heated political environment that the non-Burman leaders with the state governments behind them, tabled a proposal to make the union more federal in 1961. They pointed out that the Union, based on the 1947 constitution, was not a true federation, but that it was basically unitary with some federal features. The nationalities leaders reasoned that democracy has been strengthened by the 1960 elections when U Nu won an overwhelming victory on a democracy anti-dictatorship platform. It was well known that his opponents who were humiliated by the people as electorates were supported or favored by the military. In this new and stronger democracy that had come to Burma, it was appropriate – the ethnic nationalities felt — to revisit the constitution, all the more so since it was understood by all that the constitution would be re-examined and amended anytime after independence because it was written in haste in 1947 in a traumatic period. The constituent assembly had met in June 1947, and in July U Aung San and almost all members of the interim cabinet were gunned down. This naturally added urgency to the task at hand.

Believing that democracy had returned and had come to stay, the heads and leaders of the various states were not aware that General Ne Win was waiting in the wing, nursing his humiliation, and was about to storm onto the political stage again. This he did on March 2, 1962. His excuse was that the military had to take over in order pre-empt a secession plot hatched by Shan princes, helped along by foreign and imperialist powers.

The second phase in Burma’s political history, from 1962 onward to the present, began with the rise of the military as a political power which monopolized the state. Ne Win and his military chiefs ruled Burma for twenty-six years and in the process destroyed the country and the nation, and killed off a developing sense of common nationhood. He imposed a xenophobic, exclusionary, crudely “socialist”, and highly centralist  one-party dictatorship. In other word, Ne Win destroyed the work and vision of U Aung San, the spirit and letter of Panglong, and negated all the goodwill of the nationalities leaders that U Nu had carefully built and cultivated.  U Nu was not an ideal  or dynamic leader, and made many mistakes, but he was trusted because of his image as un-ambitious, un-devious, gentle, pious, and tolerant and understanding.

The twenty-six years under Ne Win destabilized the country, brought about the decay of all institutions and infrastructures, exacerbated the dysfunction in state-society relation, the former being highly top-down and controlling every aspect of life, and society excluded from politics and coercively de-politicized.

Ne Win’s BSPP’s (Lanzin) state was, in essence, a state of soldiers, by soldiers, for soldiers – and it was corrupt, incompetent, and lacked even the capacity to maintain existing infrastructures and service system. Everything went downhill every year, and decay set in. The state became separated from society and relation between the two parts of the Burma polity became more and more dysfunctional, and the Lanzin state fell in the face of a popular, nation-wide, people’s power uprising in 1988.

However, the military came back onto the political stage with guns blazing, killing thousands of peaceful protestors on the streets of Rangoon and other towns. Thus a new bloodstained military regime – SLORC — was established.  A re-shuffle took place in 1997 and a new council –SPDC – replaced SLORC.

Since 1988, Burma has been a country in conflict where the military and its regime faces  an opposition movement that has strong internal support as evident from the overwhelming number of seats in the 1880 elections, which the regime (SLORC, at that time) refused to honor. This honoring of this election result has become a point on which the opposition stands firm, and which represents for the regime and the military an obstacle to any negotiation because it would mean its surrender before talks, which it was not ready to do.

Furthermore, the movement for democracy enjoys wide international support, especially from Western democracies, and Daw Aung San Suukyi, the leader of the NLD has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize among other prestigious international awards besides, and is adored like Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and Mandela all rolled into one. Domestically, the fact that she is the daughter of the legendary U Aung San, and a courageous leader, a compassionate Buddhist, has won for her the love of the people, the ordinary folks, of all ethnic affiliation.

However, despite being outgunned politically and internationally, the ruling generals enjoyed the hands-on support of China, Thailand, other ASEAN leaders, and to a degree, India and Bangladesh as well. Singapore not only sent shiploads of arms to the regime in 1988, but China come through with a US$ two billion plus worth military hardware (to be repaid in installments). Also, Malaysia’s Mohammed Mahathir insisted on ASEAN membership for SLORC and successfully pushed for it. ASEAN governments encouraged their businessmen and industrialist to invest in Burma at a time the West imposed investment and other sanctions on Burma. Big oil and gas corporations – British, French, and American – also went in to do business with the military regime and the ruling generals, It might here be noted that the money poured into Burma by Asian and ASEAN, and some Japanese and South Korean businessmen and investors did not do well and many withdrew in the mid- and late-1990s. But the cash inflow in the early- to mid-1990s did provide the cash strapped regime with a breathing space.

It might be said that the two opposing camps are evenly matched, which explains the long political stalemate – now 14 years long.

In overview, it will be seen that the regime’s main (if not the only) goal is to remain in power for as long as possible, and at all cost. The frightened and desperate generals in Rangoon resorted to brutal repression against the opposition and the rural population. In  the Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Rakhine state, hundreds of thousand villagers were forcibly dislocated from their homes, and large tracts of hitherto populated areas (dotted with productive villages and farms) were declared free-fire zones. Villagers who were thus dispossessed fled in the thousands to the Thai, Indian, and Bangladesh borders. Many more thousands – not less than one hundred thousand Shan, Karenni, and Karen villagers — lived like hunted animals in makeshift huts in the jungle, frequently running away from hunter-killer teams sent by the army to hunt them down and destroy all huts,  crops, fields, and store of food that they stumble upon. Those unfortunate to be caught were often shot out of hand, even mothers with babies were not spared. To sow terror especially among the Shan, the regime turned a blind eye to (if not encouraged)  systematic rape of Shan women by its officers and soldiers. Over 600 cases have been documented by Shan human rights monitors and SWAN (a Shan women network).

In the urban areas (Rangoon and other towns, cities), those engaged in any form of political activities or suspected of being subversives have been imprisoned, beaten and tortured, and many politicians and some MP-elects have died in prison. Those in possession of “subversive” materials and publications have been sentenced to, usually, seven years imprisonment. Moreover, wives, husbands, sons, daughters and other close relatives of “subversives” and politicians are dismissed from jobs if they work for the government, or by employers on the directive of the military intelligence. The icon of democracy and the heroine of the international community, Daw Aung San Suukyi has been subject to lurid attacks and insults by the regime’s mouthpieces and hacks, and has been detained in her house twice. Recently, her motorcade was ambushed by a USDA mob in Dabayin in Monywa district, where close to a hundred of her followers were killed. This was on May 30, 2003, and a few years earlier, her motorcade was attacked by a USDA mob in Rangoon itself.

As brutal and repressive as they are, the ruling generals, or some of them – in particular, General Khin Nyunt and his MI strategists – have also come up with a carrot strategy aimed at militarily neutralizing and politically marginalizing the ethnic nationalities armies and military leaders. In the early 1990s it made a ceasefire agreement with the Kachin (KIA) which was followed with similar arrangements with armies that mutinied against the CPB (the Burmese communist), and with a resistance army in the Mon state, and two in the Karenni state (one of which was broken off after a year or so) The former communist forces included the powerful USWA (a Wa army), a Kokang army, two Kachin armies, a Shan army, a Palaung army, and a PaO army, all of which operated in the Shan State. The ceasefires are unofficial, non-political arrangements which allowed these armies to keep their arms, engage in trade and other economic-commercial activities, administer their own areas, but no politics was permitted. That is, they were to give up arms if they wish to transform into political parties and contest elections, but on political matters and their final status, they will have to negotiate with a new government.

Another strategic coup pulled off by the regime’s military intelligence was a negotiated surrender of part of the Shan MTA of Khun Sa in 1995. This came about after the bulk of Khun Sa’s Shan forces, led by Gunyod, deserted him and were quickly accorded ceasefire status by the regime.  A Shan force led by Yodsuk however did not follow Khun Sa’s lead, and is still fighting the regime.

This coup in strategy was followed by another when the Karen Buddhist soldiers and officers split from the Karen movement (KNU). This renegade force was also given ceasefire status.

As will be seen therefore, Khin Nyunt’s carrot policy in regard to the ethnic nationalities armies did win a large breathing space for the regime. But since the political goals and aspiration for freedom and peace of the ethnic nationalities have been put on hold and no political consultations among them is allowed, this peace is not peace, but simply what it is termed:  a series of ad hoc ceasefire arrangements.

Recently, Khin Nyunt and his military intelligence strategists have pulled off another tactical coup. In December 2003, the KNU (led by General Bo Mya) agreed to a military-to-military ceasefire. The KNU however insist that it will not abandon the dialogue-national reconciliation path and will not give up its political goal – which is, a democratic and federal Union of Burma.

The ethnic nationalities – whether still fighting, or in a ceasefire mode, or organized into    political parties – have a common primary goal:  which is, democracy, freedom, and federalism.  Therefore, whatever the twists and turns of politics, the ethnic nationalities will most likely not give up their ultimate goal. More of this will be dealt with in the passages to follow.

In regard to the democratic opposition movement as a whole, its strategy has been one that is international focused or oriented. This made sense as the Burmese-Burman in particular – especially the educated, the professionals, the middle class, and the intelligentsia — have been fleeing the country since 1962.  Some of the exiles living in countries around the globe continued with raising their voices and concerns, publishing newsletters, and as well organizing dissident groups inside and outside the country.  It was a lonely struggle because almost all those who left in disgust or were expelled in the 1970s – mainly of Chinese and Indian ethnicitys – were afraid to be involved in politics and saw the regime’s agents and informers around every corner, even in the countries they had re-settled. Nonetheless, there were pockets of Burmese dissidents almost everywhere in western countries, even before 1988. The most prominent of these was the CRDB, which was small, but world-wide. Some founding organizers of the CRDB are former leaders of the PDP formed by former Prime Minister U Nu in 1971 when he attempted to overthrow Ne Win military-socialist regime by armed struggle.

When the 1988 people’s uprising occurred, people fearing persecution and/or disgusted with the bloodstained military, fled the country, and ten of thousands young men and women, particularly student leaders, activists, the outraged, trekked to the border where they were welcomed and assisted by the ethnic nationalities armies. Many of the young activists and students later re-settled in Western countries. These young exiles in the US, Canada, Australia, and in the EU countries participated actively in the movement, while some founded democracy or Burma support groups in various countries, of which the most well-known and effective is the FBC. Thus the democratic opposition movement became one that spanned the globe. Further, the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel peace prize winner and had captured the hearts and minds of the public and the international community contributed crucially to the high international profile and scope of the movement.

The basic strategy of the movement as a whole is two pronged, generally speaking: One, is a combination of raising international awareness of the lawless brutality and gross mismanagement and mis-governance of the regime, its lack of legitimacy, and the hardships and human rights abuses suffered by the people under the regime. The second prong is to pressure the regime to come to the dialogue table and to cooperate with the NLD, the ethnic nationalities, and forces within broader society, to seek solutions to the country’s many problems and crises and end the conflict by political means. To this end, Daw Aung San Suukyi called for dialogue, which the United Nations supported with numerous UNGA resolutions calling for tripartite dialogue.

The first prong of the strategy led by the NCGUB, the NCUB, MPs in exile (MPU), and the NDF, DAB, and supported and implemented by political parties (in exile), various political organizations, grassroots activist networks, overseas activists, and Burma support groups (and NGOs) in all parts of the world  has been successful.  All the misdeeds of the regime — its abuse of the people, its pillage and plunder, its targeting of women for rape, its collaboration with narcotic syndicates and drug traffickers, its role in laundering dirty money, its (direct and/or indirect)  implication in and dependence on the illicit drug industry, its destruction of the environment, the deep damages it inflicted on society and Burma’s future (especially children and youth) – are now all in the open.

With regard to the second prong of the strategy, the movement has been engaged since the late 1980s in preparing for a dialogue process that will lead to a political settlement and an orderly and peaceful transition (or regime change).  Much progress, with the facilitation of the NRP, has been made especially in winning the support of the ethnic nationalities – both outside (on the borders and overseas) and inside (including the ceasefire armies) – for dialogue and for rebuilding the nation in accordance with the Panglong Accord and spirit. In 2001, the ENSCC, a work committee to prepare and push for dialogue, was formed by leaders of the ethnic nationalities at camp Law-khi-la, Karen liberated area. At Oslo, it unveiled, on the hundred anniversary celebration of the Nobel Peace Prize, “the Panglong Initiative”, centered on the rebuilding of a united, harmonious, and strong Union of Burma. This Panglong initiative countered the regime’s long-held contention that the conflict in Burma is driven by ethnic politics which would lead to inter-ethnic killings (as in Bosnia) and the breakup of the country.

Ethnic nationalities leaders – both inside the country and outside (mainly on the borders) – have achieved in the past few years, a remarkable degree of cohesion and coordination around the dialogue and national reconciliation platform, thanks the facilitation of the NRP. The leaders of the ceasefire armies have rallied around this platform and have in their own ways pushed the regime, especially Khin Nyunt and military intelligence strategists, for more political space and a political settlement via dialogue. They will, in conjunction with ethnic nationalities political parties and fronts, continue to do so, and will make use of whatever opportunities available and whatever leverage they have to achieve national reconciliation and to rebuild the nation along the line of the Panglong Initiative.


As mentioned, one prong of the movement’s strategy is political settlement through dialogue and through related or following processes. Serious preparation and planning for dialogue began in around 1998.  However, the shift from the philosophy of confrontation to the philosophy of conflict transformation, dialogue, and give-and-take, or compromise (however temporary), was a difficult process. It is a general rule that those engaged in a long struggle usually become accustomed to old ways of doing things and cannot think beyond what they know or do regardless of scant success.

There were fierce intra-movement debates and much friendly fires all around – which is an inherent part of politics anywhere — on the dialogue issue. On one side there were leaders  who argued, validly, that the regime was insincere, crafty, manipulative, brutal, irrational, and would never give up power. They argue also that only a greater force, more specifically, a people’s power uprising or external military intervention, could bring about any change. Any departure from the directly confrontational approach or strategy was certain defeat and  a betrayal of the people and the democratic movement.

Against this thinking, other leaders argue that the conflict is political, and problems must be resolved ultimately through consultation and political negotiations. They argue that since the movement, and Daw Aung San Suukyi herself, called for dialogue (since 1991-92), it should not be merely a slogan but must be adopted as a strategy to change regime, to bring about political change.  They argue that dialogue is not surrender on the part of any party, but a different form of  contestation in a different arena, the political arena, and that it is process, the political process, that will decide the outcome. They agree that the regime do not wish to dialogue and that this is because the generals intuitively know that they will lose if they begin talking to the people and the opposition. However, these leaders argue, getting the regime to the table is the main part of the strategy. This is, they maintain, the key and the most difficult part.

Before the intra-movement dialogue debate was settled, Khin Nyunt, as newly appointed Prime Minister, revealed his “democratization” roadmap in September of 2003. It was a path to political change via the re-convened National Convention process within the framework of the 104 articles (which constitutionally embeds military rule) that had been presented in the previous “national convention” (which petered out or was silently shelved by the regime in the mid-1990s, after a walk-out by the NLD delegates).

The regime’s roadmap, its change-through-the-national convention process, was swiftly welcomed by Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin. China followed suit. ASEAN leaders welcomed it at a meeting in Bali, and President Bush did not, as was expected or anticipated, criticize the regime’s National Convention process at the Bangkok APEC summit (in October). After offering some criticism, UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan welcomed the regime’s initiative, describing it as a positive step.

In mid-December, the Burmese regime was invited by Prime Minister Thaksin to a forum on Burma named “Forum on International Support for National Reconciliation in Myanmar”   in Bangkok, which was attended by ASEAN leaders and “like-minded” Western governments. The United States and other governments which supported the democracy movement and applied pressures and sanctions on the regime were ignored. The purpose of this short meeting – one session only — was to endorse and legitimate the Burmese Prime Minister’s roadmap and the national convention process.

The reaction of the movement to Khin Nyunt’s (and Thaksin’s) “democratization and national reconciliation” roadmap ranged from the predictable charge saying that the regime is not sincere and that the initiative is a ploy to deceive the international community and to ease international pressure, and that it must be boycotted, to a strong stand that called for the inclusion of Daw Suukyi and the NLD, which the so-called international forum in Bangkok also mentioned, to the observation that the roadmap is a initial, small step in an appropriate direction.

The first to react to the Burmese regime’s (or government’s) initiative was the press conference by the ENSCC on September 3. The ENSCC unveiled a roadmap that called for a National Unity Congress as the first step, to be followed by a national accord, arrangements for the interim period, and then a national convention to draft a new constitution in wide consultation with the people, the adoption of a new constitution, and an election to elect a new government. In this ENSCC initiative, the National Unity Congress is to include delegates of the regime, the 1990 election winning parties, and the ethnic nationalities.

The ethnic nationalities are committed to the dialogue and national reconciliation path, and do not out-rightly reject the initiative from Rangoon and Bangkok. This can be seen from the ENSCC’s stand and the latest statement of the Karen (KNU) which re-affirms its commitment to the peaceful and political resolution of the long conflict  and problems in Burma. Their counterparts – the ethnic nationalities leaders inside the country – cannot obviously do a total boycott of a “democratization and national reconciliation” (or the Bangkok) process which is endorsed by Thailand and neighboring governments, including China, India, and Bangladesh.

However, it is likely that leaders of the ceasefire armies (which now includes the KNU) will play a significant role because their participation is needed by both Khin Nyunt and Thaksin. The SNLD and the UNA – an alliance of ethnic nationalities MPs – will likely become a balancing and mediating factor vis-à-vis not only the ceasefire armies, but also the NLD, other political groups, and the government (and/or the SPDC).

Recent developments, especially the Bangkok forum, indicates that the conflict in Burma and its resolution has become less Burmese irregardless of the “home grown” label that has been affixed to the process. Thailand, especially Prime Minister Thaksin now has a stake in the outcome as well as in the process itself. There is now a new configuration of actors, domestic and external, and a new, and wider arena. There will certainly be games within games, circles within circles, and given the close probability that the SPDC generals have put Khin Nyunt on the limb as Prime Minister — and charged him with making a success of the national convention, i.e., delivering what they want,  continued and legitimized military rule — will be a very important variable of the Bangkok process that will soon unfold.

A final note, or rather, a question:  What will be the policy and response of the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union, to the Bangkok process if it proves to be not a step in the right direction, but totally contrary to the UN resolutions and true national reconciliation which they have long advocated and supported?

Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe
January 2004
Glossary of Organizations

AFPFL – Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (est., 1945)
BSPP – Burmese Socialist Programme Party (est., 1973)
CRDB – Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma (est., 1985)
CPB – Communist Party, Burma (est., in the 1930s)
DAB – Democratic Alliance of Burma (est., 1990)
ENSCC – Ethnic Nationalities Solidarity and Cooperation Committee (est., 2001)
FBC –  Free Burma Coalition (est., in early 1990s)
KIA —  Kachin Independence Army (est., 1960)
KNU – Karen National Union (est., in early 1950s)
MPU – Members of Parliament Union (est., in early 1990s)
MTA – Mong Tai Army (est., 1983)
NCUB – National Council of the Union of Burma (est., early 1990s)
NCGUB – National Coalition Government, Union of Burma (est., 1992)
NDF – Nationalities Democratic Front (the earliest version, est., 1961)
NLD – National League for Democracy (est., 1989)
NSA – National Solidarity Association (est., in the late 1950s)
PDP – Parliamentary Democracy Party (est.,1970)
NRP – National Reconciliation Program (est., 1998)
SLORC – State Law and Order Restoration Council (est., 1988)
SNLD – Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (est., 1989)
SPDC – State Peace and Development Committee (est., 1997)
SWAN – Shan Women Activists Network (est., mid-1990s)
UNA – United Nationalities Alliance (est., 2002)
USDA – Union Solidarity and Development Association (est., early 1990s)
UWSA – United Wa State Army (est., in the 1970s)

(NOTE:  Some dates of establishment are approximate)


By Lian H. Sakhong

Burma’s thuggish ruling elite traffics in drugs and in people—in forced labor, child labor, slave labor. It throws people into medieval torture chambers at the slightest pretext: for owning a fax machine,
for making jokes about the regime, for listening to foreign broadcasts. There are some 1,800 political prisoners. Universities have been shuttered for much of the past decade, and poverty has deepened.

The Washington Post, July 16, 2001


When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, Burma was one of the first newly independent countries, which enthusiastically endorsed the Declaration.  In fact, the smaller countries in the third world like Burma were very enthusiastic about the Declaration because this was the first international agreement that recognises the equality and dignity of all peoples, regardless of the size of their country, regardless of their geographic or ethnic origin. U Thant, the Burmese Ambassador to UN and who later became the Secretary General of the UN in 1962-1971, said that “the Universal Declaration is the Magna Carta of humankind,” for its provisions constitute “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”  

Today, however, we have a military regime in Burma, claiming that the provisions of Universal Declaration of Human Rights are based on Western concepts of government and human nature, that it is a tool of Western cultural imperialism imposed on us, and that it ignores the distinctive cultural values of the Burmese people. General Saw Maung, Chairman of the SLORC, for example, said, “I tell you if anyone wants to enjoy the human rights they have in the US, England and India, provided the country accepts; I will permit them to leave. But in Myanmar [Burma], I can only grant human rights suitable for Myanmars [Burmese] people.”  As the regime rule the country under the Martial Law, he also said, “Martial Law is no law at all, but the use of force.”

Present military junta in Burma can best be described as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. After the bloody coup in 1988, gross violations of human rights, including the draconian suppression of political freedoms, arbitrary detention, torture, rape, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, oppression of ethnic and religious minorities, and use of forced labour are continuously increasing. The Index on Human Misery in 1992, therefore, ranked Burma as one of the world’s most miserable countries, estimating that over 16 million of 46 million inhabitants were under the poverty line, and living under insufferable conditions. The year 2003 represented no improvements in human rights in Burma; in fact, the situation of the common people is continuing to worsen. Systematic abuses of economic, social and cultural rights by the regime and army has been continuing to grow as the ruling military junta called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) consolidates its power at all costs.

Since 1991, the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have for 12 consecutive years adopted consensus resolutions condemning the military’s systematic gross abuse of human rights and its refusal to accept the will of the Burmese people as expressed in the 1990 general elections. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has in effect, expelled Burma from the ILO for the regime’s widespread use of forced labour.

Political crisis, civil war and human rights violations in Burma are always related with notorious golden triangle drug trade.  Since the 1950’s, unable to repel the Chinese Kuomintang troops and unable to pay local defence forces, the Burma Army authorised militia to trade in opium to finance their operations. In the 1960’s more militia to fight Shan nationalists were raised and again they were paid by allowing them to trade in opium. Worse yet, in 1989, fearing that some ethnic armies would join the democracy movement; the military signed cease-fires with them. In exchange for not joining the democracy movement, some of the ethnic armies, among them is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), were given the right to ‘trade’ without any restrictions. So, until recently, Burma was the biggest producer of opium and heroin. The current level of annual production is about 2,000 tons. However, the drug lords in Burma are now switching from heroin to the production of amphetamines which is more lucrative. The fact that cash can be deposited in Burmese banks with no questions asked and the fact that Burma’s drug lords are now known as successful ‘entrepreneurs’ in Burma’s new economy and live in Rangoon, all point to the fact that the regime benefits from the drug trade.

In addition to drugs, Burma is a major source of HIV/AIDS infection, which will in the long run affect regional stability.  Burma after India and Thailand has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in Asia. It is understandable that India with a population of 1 billion has the highest number. Thailand’s HIV/AIDS problem is caused by its rampant sex trade. But through public education and good policies, the situation is slowly being brought under control. Burma’s HIV/AIDS epidemic is mainly caused by drug addiction. It is illegal in Burma to own a needle. Addicts, therefore, share needles. In testing drug addicts in northern Burma over 90% tested positive. The problem is compounded by contaminated blood. When the military requires blood transfusion, the blood is taken from prisoners. There is no screening. The next factor is the fact that more and more Burmese women and girls are being sold into the sex trade in Thailand. When they test positive, they are shipped home without any explanation and the military sends them back to their home villages. There is no information, education or treatment program. The military in Burma is still denying that HIV/AIDs is a problem.  The World Health Organisation and other independent sources estimated at least 500,000 HIV/AIDs positive cases in Burma.

Another major problem, which has a bearing on the matter, is the fact that education in Burma has virtually become non-existent. In the past 14 years, universities have been closed for about 9 nine years. This means that Burma does not now have educated people who can help develop the country. Unable to win the allegiance of students, the military has opted for keeping the universities closed and students scattered rather than provide them with an education for fear that they will organise anti-regime demonstrations which could spark nation-wide unrest. In addition to university closures, an even more disturbing trend was reported by the World Bank recently. According to statistics provided by the regime, in 1989 the education budget was Kyat 1,200 per child per year. In 1999, this figure had decreased to Kyat 100 per child per year! The World Bank also reported that half of the primary school-aged children are malnourished and on average it takes a Burmese child 9.5 years to complete 5 years of primary school. This means that Burma is facing an enormous crisis. Without an educated population, how can anyone build a nation? The statistics take on an even more disturbing aspect when it is realised that this neglect of education is a deliberate policy and not an oversight. During the period that the education budget has been declining, the regime has more than doubled the size of its army from 180,000 men to 450,000 men and purchased US$ 1.8 billion worth of arms from China. The question is why because Burma has no external enemies. The only possible answer is that the regime intends to remain in power at all cost even to the extent of sacrificing the future of Burma’s children.

In this paper, I will investigate the political root of human rights violations and the denial of minority rights in Burma. Instead of compiling detail accounts of human rights violations, I will argue from historical point of view that human rights violations in Burma began with the denial of minority rights by the successive governments of the Union of Burma—even during the so called parliamentary democracy period—in the name of maintaining national sovereignty. Though a certain level of individual rights were guaranteed constitutionally during the parliamentary democracy period, minority rights on the other hand was violated, which in turn became the main source of political crisis as well as gross violations of human rights in present Burma.

While human rights are mainly concerned with individual rights, minority rights are particularly concerned, as a Swedish scholar Alf Tergel points out, with the collective rights “with a view to preserving and developing their specific character and the people’s right to self-determination.”  The central argument of this paper, therefore, will be the issue of “self-determination”; and try to point out that when the rights of self-determination for minority groups in the country are abused by the power holders of the state, the state itself became a mechanism by which the people’s rights area abused, instead of maintaining its fundamental ideal of being an instrument for ensuring civil, political, social and cultural rights.

The main objective of this paper, therefore, is to investigate how the successive governments of the Union of Burma have violated minority rights, including collective rights of self-determination, in the name of “nation-building”, how they abused the rights of minority religious groups in the name of “national integration”, and how the basic human rights are denied in the name of maintaining “national sovereignty”.

Human Rights vs. Traditional Burmese Political Values

In his article “Traditional Values and Universal Rights”, Jack Donnelly argues that every society possesses a perception of human dignity, a particular view of the inner natural and worth of the human person and his or her personal relations to society, perceptions that are reflected in its institutions and practices. He nevertheless maintains that the idea that a person is entitled to equal concerned, respect and a wide range of inalienable personal rights is alien to most of non-Western societies, where social structures and the underlying social visions of human dignity rest mainly on social status, hierarchies and  duties, not on rights. And he concludes his argument, saying that “persons are not seen as bearers of rights but rather as bearers of duties.”

The concept of human persons as the bearers of duties, not as the bearer of rights, was well developed under the absolute monarchy of traditional Burmese authoritarianism and it is still practiced by General Ne Win and his successors, including current military junta, State Peace Development Council. Maung Maung Gyi, therefore, argues in his Burmese Political Values: the Socio-Political Roots of Authoritarianism, that the military coup of 1962 and its consequences of authoritarianism under General Ne Win were “the culmination of a political process”; stemming from a pre-colonial “authoritarian system of native Burmese monarchical rules.”  As Maung Maung Gyi observes, “from 1044 to 1885, for over 800 years, the Burmese lived under an absolute monarchy. Its authority was never challenged by any liberal forces during these years until it was overthrown by alien power in 1885.”  The Burman pattern of thought on the government was therefore moulded during these 800 years, and “the nature of kingship largely determined the pattern of thought.”  Though the “British conquest of Burma in 1885 laid the foundations for a significant change in the infrastructure of Burmese political culture”, he argues, “the impact of British administration was not such as to bring about a revolutionary change in the medieval Burmese mind.”  Another way of putting it is to say that the British administration destroyed “the old Burmese officialdom”, but its “ethos was never broken.” And Maung Maung Gyi concludes his argument by saying:

Suffice it to say that the medieval mind underwent no essential change after being ruled by the British over 60 years (in upper Burma) to over 100 years (in lower Burma). One should not, therefore, have serious doubts as to whether the reversion to a one-man-dominated authoritarian rule pattern in 1962 was not an atavistic trends, a return to the age-old Burmese political system with modern trappings of communist genre, which itself is an offshoot of authoritarianism.

In a society where “one-man-dominated rule” is practiced, “duty” becomes a mechanism of power relations between the ruler and the subjects; for the ruler it is his power tools through which his wills are imposed upon the society, and for the people or the subjects on the other hands, “duty” is the mechanism through which they response the ruler by obeying his order. Thus, a society based on “duties” does not recognize “rights”; for “rights are legal recognition of individual will [not the will of the ruler].”  Another way of putting the same idea, as Costas Douzinas argues, is that “a society based on rights does not recognize duties; it acknowledges only responsibilities arising from the reciprocal nature of rights in the form of limits on rights for the protection of the rights of others.”

“Human Rights” is a combined term. They refer to “the human, to the humanity or human nature” and the reference to “rights” refer to the concept that “all human being are entitled to the same basic rights”, which are indissolubly linked with the movement of humanism and its legal reform. In this sense, human rights are “both creations and creators of modernity”; originated from classical Greek philosophy, continue via the Magna Carta of 1215, to the 1689 Bills of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, and ending with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Thus, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as Douzinas claims, is “the greatest political and legal invention of modern political philosophy and jurisprudence; First, they mark a profound turn in political thought from “duty” to “rights”, from civitas and communitas to civilization and humanity; Secondly, they reverse the traditional priority between the individual and society.”

It is, therefore, no need to build a foundation for human rights on any particular traditional values; not even on “natural human dignity”. It may be tempting to relate, as Michael Ignatieff observes, “the idea of human rights to propositions like the following: that human being have an innate or natural dignity, that they have a natural and intrinsic self-worth, that they are sacred.”  However, “these ideas about dignity, worth, and human sacredness appear to confused what is with what ought to be, they are controversial, and because they are controversial, they are likely to fragment commitment to the practical responsibilities entailed by human rights instead of strengthening them.” Michael Ignatieff, therefore, suggests:

We must work out a belief in human rights on the basis of human beings as they are, working on assumptions about the worst we can do, instead of hopeful expectations of the best. In other words, we do not build foundations on human nature but on human history, on what we know is likely to happen when human being do not have the protection of rights. We build on the testimony of fear, rather than on the expectations of hope. This…is how human rights consciousness has been built since the Holocaust.

The struggle for human rights in Burma, therefore, needs no reference to Burmese traditional political culture or religious value. Human rights—in terms of both idea and practice—is not a subjective value but objective truth, and the creation of human history; it is not account of what is good but what is right, which can be applied universally.

Human Rights and Self-determination

The concept of self-determination has been advanced since the time of the French Revolution, with the idea of the “nation” as the whole people, as the object of ultimate political loyalty, and as endowed with an alienable right to self-determination and separate statehood. When the League of Nations was founded after the First World War, the right to self-determination had become an international phenomenon. The “minority protection” scheme under the League of Nations was in particular a formulation of “the principles of national self-determination”; as Woodrow Wilson put it, “Every people have a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live.”

However, the League of Nations’ scheme for “minority protection” was seriously abused by the Nazis, who encouraged German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland to escalate their demands for minority rights. When the Czechoslovak and Polish governments were unable to meet these demands, the Nazis used this as a pretext for invasion. Consequently, when the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all references to the rights of ethnic minorities were deleted. The hope was that the new emphasis on “human rights” and the principle of non-discrimination would resolve minority conflicts. Rather than protecting vulnerable groups directly, through special rights for the members of particular groups, cultural minorities would be protected indirectly, by guaranteeing basic civil and political rights to all individuals, regardless of group membership.

During the cold war, from 1948 to 1989, both camps of Liberal West and Socialist East put greater emphasis on territorial integrity than on national self-determination. The consensus among the major powers, as Wallensteen explains, was “to describe anti-colonial conflicts as a particular category of conflict”, mainly due to the fact that “the anti-colonial movements provided a potential dilemma and challenge as they argued in term of self-determination”. And he argues:

The goal in the decolonization process was the creation of new states from the territories legally and militarily held by colonial powers. Thus, the issue was control over territory within what was, formally speaking, one state. Some colonial territories were highly integrated into the colonial “motherland”, even with representation in the National Assembly.

The neglect of minority cultures, as Vernon Van Dyke argues, is not a new phenomenon arising during the cold war, but has deep roots in the Western political tradition.  In liberal tradition, as Van Dyke explains, the fundamental issue for political theory is the proper relationship between the individual and the state. He argues that the relentless individualism of the traditional liberal approach makes it incapable of explaining some inherently collective features of political life, including the formation of the state itself, “which suggest in principle that liberalism cannot be trusted to deal adequately with the question of status and rights for ethnic communities, most of which are minorities within the state”.  Liberalism, in Van Dyke’s view, cannot and does not offer a clear basis for the right of nations or peoples to self-determination, as a right accruing to groups. The liberal tradition, with its individual conception, is he says “unduly limited”, and “it is not enough to think in terms of two-level relations, with the individual at one level and the state at another”.

The problem with the liberal tradition, according to Van Dyke, is that “its theorists have often taken for granted that citizens feel themselves to constitute a distinct group, sharing a common language and a common desire to live together”, and that this community has organized itself into a state through some form of social “contract”. Contrary to this assumption, only in very few countries in the world do all citizens share the same language, or belong to the same ethno-national group. In many countries, he argues, there are two or more ethno-cultural communities living together in a single state. Since liberalism ignores the group basis for political life, “it is blind to the injustices suffered by minority cultures, which can only be rectified by supplementing liberalism with a theory of collective rights”. The flaw of liberalism, in a nutshell, is “its individualism, which cannot accord any status to groups between the individual and the state”.

In the name of “internationalism”, Marxist tradition, on the other hand, ignored the right of self-determination for ethnic minorities during the cold war. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx mentioned that the proletariat have no nationality—they are workers of the world. Marxist tradition therefore views cultural and national divisions as temporary stopping points, whether it is a question of language rights or national autonomy.  Thus, in their understanding of national questions, Marxists define their theory in terms of “historical vs. non-historical nations”. For Marx and Engels, “historical nations” or “modern nations” came into existence “through the embryonic capitalist economy in transition from feudalism to capitalism. As a direct result of this process, the feudal society was slowly united under the structure of the embryonic modern state.”  The concept of “non-historical nations”, on the other hand, implied “the people (Völker) who had proved to be unable to build a state over a period of time”.  Marx and Engels repeatedly argued that “national communities incapable of constituting ‘proper national states’ should vanish by being assimilated into more ‘progressive’ and ‘vital’ nations.”  They therefore accepted the right of “the great national subdivisions of Europe” to independence, and hence supported the unification of France, Italy, Poland and Germany, and the independence of England, Hungary, Spain and Russia. But they rejected the idea that the smaller “nationalities” had any such rights, such as the Czechs, Basques, Welsh, Bulgarians, Romanians and Slovenes. These smaller nationalities were expected to assimilate to one of the “greater nations”, without the benefits of any minority rights, whether it be language rights or national autonomy.

During the cold war, the socialist bloc, led by the Soviet Union, strongly supported non-interference and territorial integrity rather than the rights to self-determination. One of the reasons, as Wallensteen observes, is that “the Soviet Union was the country that had made the largest territorial gains as a result of the Second World War. This included the annexation of the Baltic States, the incorporation of territory which formerly was part of Eastern Poland and Germany, and taking over Bessarabia from Romania.”  Thus, the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc became a strong defender of the territorial status quo. However, during the cold war, the Soviet Union applied double standards in their international relations: on the one hand, its concern for secure borders and political influence in Europe made it a strong defender of territorial integrity; on the other, anti-colonial movements in the Third World, which were very much anti-Western and anti-capitalist, made it a supporter of self-determination. However, as Wallensteen points out, “Soviet support for [self-determination] applied only to colonial situations”.

As we have seen, both liberal individualism and socialist internationalism clearly led to a denial of the rights of minority cultures, especially the right to self-determination, during the cold war. International communities and bodies, including the United Nations, followed the lead given by the two superpowers. Moreover, there is relatively little recognition in international law for substantive minority rights, such as the right to self-determination, although it has been based primarily on the non-discrimination model.  Rather than protecting collective rights directly, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights focuses only on basic civil and political rights for individuals, regardless of group membership.

However, it has become increasingly clear, as Kymlicka argues, that existing human rights standards are simple unable to resolve some of the most important and controversial questions relating to cultural minorities.

The right to free speech does not tell us what an appropriate language policy is; the right to vote doesn’t tell us how political boundaries should be drawn, or how powers should be distributed between levels of government; the right to mobility doesn’t tell us what an appropriate immigration and naturalization policy is. These questions have been left to the usual process of majoritarian decision-making within each state. The result has been to render cultural minorities vulnerable to significant injustice at the hands of the majority, and to exacerbate ethno-cultural conflict.

Since the end of the cold war, there has been increasing interest at the international level in supplementing traditional human rights principles with a theory of minority rights. For example, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted a declaration on the Rights of National Minorities in 1991, and established a High Commissioner on National Minorities in 1993. The United Nations has debated both a Declaration on Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1993) and a Draft Universal Declaration on Indigenous Rights (1988). In 1992, the Council of Europe adopted a declaration on minority language rights (the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages).  This new development, after the collapsed of Soviet, is the most encouraging sign for our struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma.

During the cold war, however, ethnic nationalities in Burma did not receive enough support, internally or internationally, in their struggle for the right of self-determination, including greater autonomous status for their national states within the Union. Instead, most of the international community, especially the UN and neighbouring countries such as India, supported the territorial integrity of the newly independent Burma. Thus, in the 1950s and 1960s, the newly independent Burmese government’s efforts towards “nation building”, “national integration” etc. were directly and consciously influenced by historical developments in the West, and also by the anti-colonial movements in their fellow developing countries.

Thus, human rights violation and denial of minority rights in Burma should be analysed within the historical context of “state formation conflict” which began soon after gained her independence in Burma. State formation conflict in Burma is a vertical conflict between a Burman military-monopolized “state” and ethnic nationalities whose rights have for so long been suppressed by the “state”; not a horizontal ethnic conflict between different segments of the country’s population. The political crisis in Burma is therefore a constitutional problem stemming from the reversal of Aung San’s policy of federalism and the principle of “unity in diversity” on which the historic Panglong Agreement was based. We therefore need to take a closer look at how Aung San’s policy, particularly his policy relating to the Panglong Agreement, was constitutionally reversed by his successor, U Nu.

Human Rights, Religion and Nation Building

Aung San, who persuaded the Chin, Kachin, Shan and other ethnic nationalities to join the Union, had a clear policy of “nation building” based on the principles of “equality” and “unity in diversity”. He criticized the notion of religious-oriented traditional Burmese nationalism of “our race, our religion, our language”, which he said “have gone obsolete now”. And he clearly states “religion is a matter of individual conscience, while politics is social science. We must see to it that the individual enjoys his rights, including the right to freedom of religious belief and worship. We must draw clear lines between politics and religion because the two are not the same thing. If we mix religion with politics, then we offend the spirit of religion itself.”

However, after Aung San was assassinated, U Nu adopted the state religion of Buddhism as a means of “national integration”. Buddhism, indeed, had been inseparably intertwined with the Myanmar national identity, as an old saying so clearly put it: Buddha bata, Myanmar Lumyo (“To be a Myanmar is to be a Buddhist”). Thus, it was quite reasonable for leaders like U Nu to believe that Buddhism could make a significant contribution to some aspects of national integration. Historically, Buddhism had played a most important role in binding together diverse ethnic groups such as the Burman, Mon, Shan and Rakhine (Arakanese).

Although Buddhism had been a powerful integrative force in traditional Burman/Myanmar society, the modern, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural nation-state of the Union of Burma was a very different country from the pre-colonial Myanmar Kingdom. Thus, the fundamental question for the Union of Burma is: Can Buddhism, a vital source of political legitimacy for traditional Burmese kingship, provides equally effective support for the present democratic regime? The question of legitimacy is closely related to the psychological problem of identity. The concomitant questions are therefore: Can Buddhism provides the values needed to create a modern Burmese national identity? In an attempt to solve the problems of political legitimacy and national identity through religion, what happens to religious minorities and the delicate fabric of national unity?

It seemed that that answer for U Nu was “Yes”; and when he became the leader of the Burmese independence movement and Prime Minister of the newly independent Burma, he reversed Aung San’s version of Union Constitution, particularly the clause of separation between religion and politics, declaring: “In the marrow of my bones there is a belief that government should enter into the sphere of religion.”  U Nu’s government, therefore, adopted state religion of Buddhism as a means of “national integration”; that is, an attempt was made to achieve homogeneity by imposing religious and cultural assimilation into the predominant group of Myanmar Buddhists. In so doing, Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs was created to promote the process of assimilation, even before Buddhism was promulgated as a state religion.  The official view, as John Cady observes, was that:

A unity of culture existed among the people of the Union and those existing differences are only expressions of the same culture at different stages of development. The Burman and Pyu peoples had long since been amalgamated; the Mon had almost been absorbed, the Shan assimilation was in progress. The Karens, Kachins, and Chins were also mainly Tibeto-Burman, and all were allegedly suitable for becoming parts of a closely knit cultural organism.

U Nu’s official government policy of “unity in culture” was oversimplified. The Chin, for instance, never accepted Buddhism either as a culture or as a religion. In contrast to the government’s view, the amalgamation of the Burman and Pyu, or the extinction of the Pyu, was a historical reminder which served to awaken the Chin people’s self-awareness of a separate national identity, without which they might one day cease to exist as the Pyu people had once done. The Chin therefore, far from accepting assimilation, took the view that U Nu’s confessional policy of religion, or what the government called “unity in culture”, must be resisted at all costs; and they took arms to defend themselves from assimilation in 1964.

The revision of Aung San’s version of the Union Constitution thus proved to be the end of his policy for a secular state and pluralism in Burma, which eventually led to the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion of the Union of Burma in 1961.

For the Chin and other non-Burman nationalities, the promulgation of Buddhism as the “state religion of the Union of Burma” in 1961 was the greatest violation of the Panglong Agreement in which U Aung San and the leaders of the non-Burman nationalities agreed to form a Union based on the principle of equality. They therefore viewed the passage of the state religion bill not only as religious issue, but also as a constitutional problem, in that this had been allowed to happen.  In other words, they now viewed the Union Constitution as an instrument for imposing “a tyranny of majority”, not as their protector. Thus, the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion of Burma became not a pious deed, but a symbol of the tyranny of the majority under the semi-unitary system of the Union Constitution.

There were two different kinds of reactions to the state religion reform from different non-Burman nationalities. The first reaction came from more radical groups who opted for an armed rebellion against the central government in order to gain their political autonomy and self-determination. The most serious armed rebellion as a direct result of the adoption of Buddhism as state religion was that of the Kachin Independence Army, which emerged soon after the state religion of Buddhism was promulgated in 1961. The “Christian Kachin”, as Graver observes, “saw the proposal for Buddhism to be the state religion as further evidence of the Burmanization [Myanmarization] of the country,”  which they had to prevent by any means, including an armed rebellion. The Chin rebellion, led by Hrang Nawl, was also related to the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion, but the uprising was delayed until 1964 owing to tactical problems. Thus, the Chin rebellion was mostly seen as the result of the 1962 military coup, rather than the result of the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion in 1961.

The second reaction came from more moderate groups, who opted for constitutional means of solving their problems, rather than an armed rebellion. The most outstanding leader among these moderate groups was Sao Shwe Thaike of Yawnghwe, a prominent Shan Sawbwa who was elected as the first President of the Union of Burma. Although a devout Buddhist, he strongly opposed the state religion bill because he saw it as a violation of the Panglong Agreement. As a president of the Supreme Council of United Hills People (SCOUHP), formed during the Panglong Conference, he invited leaders of not only the Chin, Kachin and Shan, the original members of the SCOUHP, but also other non-Burman nationalities—the Karen, Kayah, Mon, and Rakhine (Arakan)—to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, to discuss constitutional problems. Unfortunately, these problems still remain unsolved. The conference was attended by 226 delegates and came to be known as the 1961 Taunggyi Conference, and the movement itself was known later as the Federal Movement.

At the Taunggyi Conference, all delegates, except three who belonged to U Nu’s party,  agreed to amend the Union Constitution based on the Panglong Agreement of 1947, that is—the principles of political equality for all member states of the Union, the rights of self-determination for all ethnic nationalities in the country and democratic rights for all citizens of Burma. In short, they wanted to amend the Union constitution in accordance with the principles of federalism and democratic decentralization

In response to the demand of the 1961 Taungyi Conference, U Nu had no choice but to invite all the political leaders and legal experts from both Burman and non-Burman nationalities to what became known as the Federal Seminar at which “the issues of federalism and the problems of minorities would be discussed with a view to finding a peaceful solution.”   The meeting opened on 24 February, 1962 in Rangoon while the parliament was meeting also in regular session. But before the seminar was concluded and just before U Nu was scheduled to speak, the military led by General Ne Win seized state power in the name of the Revolutionary Council in the early morning of 2 March, arresting all the non-Burman participants of the Federal Seminar and legally elected cabinet members, including U Nu himself, dissolving the parliament, suspending the constitution and ending all the debate on federal issues.

In the final analysis, U Nu’s greatest hope was “that Buddhism would be the unifying identity in which all Burmese [Burman and non-Burman alike] could discover their nationhood, but in the end it proved one of the decisive dividing factors that led to his defeat and the end of the parliamentary experiment in Burma.”  Thus, it was obvious now that Buddhism, which used to be a vital source of political legitimacy for traditional Burmese kingship, could no longer provide the values needed to create a modern Burmese national identity in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural plural society of the Union of Burma.

Denial of Religious and Cultural Rights under Ne Win’s Dictatorship

As mentioned above, U Nu adopted state religion of Buddhism as a means of national integration. In this section, I will analyse the nature of General Ne Win’s dictatorship, and how the de facto government of the military regime legitimized itself through traditional Burmese political concepts. As David Steinberg observes, “there have been five foci for the legitimization of Burmese governments or pretenders to power in the twentieth century: nationalism, Buddhism, socialism, military leadership and election”.  Since the independence movement, nationalism had been an enduring element of the Burmese concept of political legitimacy, the “sine qua non of political life”, as Steinberg so aptly puts it. As we have seen earlier, U Nu apparently mixed nationalism with Buddhism in his attempt to legitimize his government. General Ne Win, on the other hand, mixed nationalism with socialism, and he also used military leadership as a means to introduce national integration to achieve homogeneity in the country.

Nationalism, for both U Nu and Ne Win, was simply based on the notion of “one race, one language and one religion”—that is to say, the Burman or Myanmar race, Myanmar-sa and Buddhism. Although their approaches to “national integration” were different, U Nu and Ne Win both had the same goal of creating a homogeneous people in the country. While U Nu opted for cultural and religious assimilation into Buddhism as a means of integration, Ne Win removed the rights of the country’s religious and cultural minorities, including all civil and basic human rights, as a means of creating a homogeneous unitary state. U Nu and Ne Win thus complemented each other, although their approaches in depriving cultural and religious minorities of their rights were different in nature.

In his campaign against the rights of minority cultures and religions in the country, General Ne Win targeted Christianity as an unwanted foreign religion, while viewing Christian missionaries as people who kept “imperialism alive”. Consequently, he expelled all foreign missionaries from Burma in 1966. Until 1966 when the missionaries were expelled, non-Christian Burman nationalists like General Ne Win viewed and understood the existence of Christians in Burma merely in terms of the church’s social missions, such as schools and hospitals, and the presence of foreign missionaries in the country. Without these two factors, they thought that “the church will soon weaken and die”.

Thus, in order to suppress both Christian movements and different ethnic nationalist movements, General Ne Win’s government not only expelled foreign missionaries, but also nationalized all the missionary schools and hospitals in the country. At the same time, the government intensified its military campaign against the Chin, Kachin, Karen and other ethnic nationalist movements. Ironically, when the government suppressed the military aspects of the Chin nationalist movements, the indigenous form of Christianity, that is, the church without foreign missionaries became a more valid expression of the Chin national identity in Burma.

Restriction on Religious Freedom

The nationalisation of private Christian schools and hospitals had made it clear that the so called “religious freedom” under General Ne Win’s regime did not include permission to maintain such Christian institutions.  Likewise, the expulsion of foreign missionaries from the country in 1966 indicated that, under the military regime of the Revolutionary Council, religious freedom did not include the right of Christians in Burma (mainly Chin, Kachin and Karen) to invite missionaries from abroad to assist the churches within the country. In addition, the continuing inability of Christians to secure Burmese passports to enable them to attend international Christian conferences was an indication of a further limitation in their freedom of religion.

It was in the area of Christian publications that the increased governmental control was felt very keenly. In 1965, the Revolutionary Council issued the “Censor Law”, requiring four copies of any manuscript of a religious nature to be submitted for approval before it could be published. This order included magazines, tracts, and Sunday school materials, as well as books. No arrangements had been made to read or pass on such manuscripts unless they were written in either the Burmese or the English language. Along with manuscripts written in any language other than these two, four copies of a translation into Burmese or English had to be submitted along with the originals. Although a considerable amount of Christian publishing was done in Burmese, nevertheless there was a very great demand for Sunday school materials, hymnals, etc. in the languages of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and others who constituted the overwhelming majority of the Christians in the country. As can well be imagined, having to translate manuscripts from these languages into Burmese or English entailed a great deal of work, increased time for preparation, and extra expense.

Once the application to the government had been made, after a period of three weeks as minimum and perhaps several months as a maximum, one could expect information as to whether or not the government had approved the manuscript. Upon receipt of approval, an order could then be given to a printer to do the work. The printer, on the basis of the order, then applied for permission to purchase from the government the paper needed for the job. When that permission finally came through, the printer very often found that he had been granted less paper than requested, and often of a different size and of poorer quality! Average and better qualities of paper were reserved for government printing; only the cheaper qualities were available for the general public, including religious organisations. Thus, in the printing of any piece of religious material it was always necessary to anticipate a delay of a number of months, even years. It was obvious how difficult and trying this could be, especially in publishing materials which have a time limit such as Sunday School lessons.

The 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law and the 1965 Censor Law immediately hit not only the publication of Christian literature, but also all the literature of non-Burman nationalities. Following the nationalisation of schools, which used to be the centre of learning for the literatures of non-Burman Christian nationalities, such as the Chin, Kachin and Karen, “successive BSPP administrations embarked on what ethnic minority leaders allege was a straightforward policy of Burmanization” or Myanmarnization. Since then, as Martin Smith correctly observes:

Minority language area rarely taught or used beyond the fourth grade in school; ethnic minority publications are restricted to little more than folksy, housewife magazines, such as the Karen Our Home and Go Forward. The distribution of religious literature, including the Bible, has been restricted and BSPP officials and censors have complained to Christian pastors about the militant language of the Old Testament, which they claim, is incitement to rebellion.

Since the military government came to power in 1962, as Martin Smith point out, the Christians in Burma, especially non-Burman nationalities have mostly been unable to print the Holy Bible in their own language inside Burma. Chin Christians, for instance, printed the Bile in the Chin language in India, and smuggled it into Burma in the 1970s and 1980s. Even the Holy Bible in Burmese, which was translated by Rev. Judson in the 1820s, never received permission to be reprinted from the Censor Board of the BSPP, or at least the Old Testament never did. Only the New Testament, together with Psalms and Proverbs, once received permission to be printed during the entire period of BSPP administrations, that is, from 1962 to 1988.

Restriction on Freedom of Expression

As far as social change under the military regime was concerned, the most drastic change took place in the realm of the press and other publications. The RC imposed the strongest ever restrictions and pressures, not only on the press but also on libraries and publishing companies. Newspapers were operated either by the government, which had founded The Working People’s Daily, or else completely under government control. All news from abroad was channelled to the papers through the News Agency, Burma (NAB), a government news office. In this way, “Burma’s previously lively press was effectively brought under state control within a few years of the coup.”  Prior to the military take-over, Burma had had more than thirty newspapers. Apart from the leading ones in Burmese and English, there were also five in Chinese, two in Hindi and one each in Urdu, Tamil, Telegu and Gujarati. Moreover, there were many locally run newspapers in non-Burmese languages, such as in Karen, Kachin and Chin. A well-known weekly newsmagazine in Chin, Hruaituthar (literally: New Leaders), run by Rev. James Sang Awi, was also banned by the military government.

The same restrictions were placed, as indicated above, on libraries and publishing companies. The RC promulgated the “Printers and Publishers Regulation Law” in 1962, which scrutinised not only “the text, language and subject of new books and journals but even the number of copies printed.” This resulted, as Martin Smith observes, “in a plethora of privately-owned magazines containing only short stories, for these were easier to replace if rejected. All were for entertainment; no news periodicals were permitted. Over the years the same laws were extended to film, music and video companies.”

In short, the 1962 Press Act and the 1965 Censor Act nullified the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, which have been guaranteed to all the people by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for the people of Burma.

Religious Persecution under Current Military Junta (A Case of the Chin Christians)

Since the military coup in 1988, the distinction between the army and state ceased to exist, and gross violations of human rights become part of everyday life in Burma. In addition to gross violation of human rights, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has launching relentlessly the campaign of “Myanmarnization” or “Burmanizing” the country by systematically destroying significant and symbolic identities of non-Burman ethnic groups.

Since the early 1990, the regime has turned its attention to the north-western part of the country, particularly the Chin State, to expand its military establishment there in an effort to gain effective control over the Chin population, who had hitherto remained relatively free from direct Burman control. Although only one army battalion was stationed in Chin State prior to 1988, more than 10 infantry battalions, about five thousand soldiers, are now active in the area. The junta’s justification was to meet Chin insurgent threat, a movement which began in 1988 with the formation of the Chin National Front by a few exiled politicians and members of Chins students and youths who fled to India in the aftermath of the 1988 nation-wide democracy uprising. The Chin National Front is fighting for the restoration of democracy in Burma and self-determination for the Chin people. Neither the SLORC nor SPDC have acknowledged the CNF in the state-run media; nor do they mention the CNF when speaking of the “armed groups” that have yet to “return to the legal fold.”2 In stead, some officials refer to them as “misguided youths” who would sooner or later see the light and would return to the “legal fold”.

Because the Chin State has the largest concentration of Christians in the whole of Burma in terms percentage, it was not only a large army of soldiers that was brought into by the Burmese regime. In the name of “Hill Regions Buddhist Mission” the junta brought in an army of Buddhist monks who were then dispatched to various towns and villages across Chin State. Protected by the soldiers, these Buddhist monks have considerable powers over the Chin population. In many cases, local people have pointed out that the monks are military intelligence operatives who are more powerful than local army commanders. The Chin Human Rights Organization reported about the monks stationed around Matupi Township as follow:

The monks who live at Zakam, Rezua, Leisen, Vangvai and Tinsi villages rule the communities. Anyone who doesn’t abide by the monks orders is reported to the SLORC/SPDC army and he/she is punished by the army. The monks give judgment on all cases. For those who become Buddhist, they are free from any persecution such as forced labour, portering, extortion of money, etc. Whenever and wherever a monk visits, he is accompanied by the army and they arrange a porter to carry the monk’s particulars. The villagers were forced to build a Buddhist monastery and temple. But they refused, insisting “we are Christians”. Even though the army threatened action against them, they didn’t build it yet. Now the monks and army are holding a meeting to discuss this. Nobody knows what will happen.

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization report, the method that the “Hills Regions Buddhists Mission” is applying is as follows:

1.  To attack Christian families and the progress of Christians.
2.  To criticize against the sermons which are broadcast from Manila, Philippines.
3.  To criticize God as narrow-minded and egotistical who himself claimed that “There is no god except eternal God”.
4. To criticize Christian ways of life as corrupted and inappropriate culture in Burma.
5. To criticize the preaching of Christians wherever it has penetrated.
6. To criticize Christianity by means of pointing out its delicacy and weakness.
7. To stop the spread of the Christian movement in rural areas.
8. To criticize by means of pointing out “there is no salvation without purchased by the blood of Christ”.
9.  To counterattack by means of pointing out Christianity’s weakness and overcome this with Buddhism.
10. To counter the Bible after thorough study.
11. To criticize that “God loves only Israel but not all the races”.
12.  To point out ambiguity between the two testaments.
13. To criticize on the point that Christianity is partisan religion.
14.  To criticize Christianity’s concept of the Creator and compare it with the scientific concept.
15. To study and access the amount given in offerings.
16.  To criticize the Holy Bible after thorough study.
17.  To attack Christians by means of both non-violence and violence.

A 40-year-old Chin Christian from Matupi Township recounted how he was converted to Buddhism, recruited and trained to be part of a campaign against Christians, as follows:

I was invited to attend social welfare training by the [SLORC (now SPDC)] authority from Matupi on 27/2/95. When I arrived at the place, the authority told us that it is to attend Buddhist hill tract missionary training run by a Buddhist monk named U Razinn at Mindat. As we are Christian, we said we didn’t want to go. But the monk persuaded us saying, ‘it is no problem if you are Christian, it is just religious training’. So 5 other persons and I took part in the 10 day training. In the training, we were taught the 17 facts of how to attack and disfigure Christians.

Since they came into power, the military junta has ordered the removal of several crosses erected by local Chin Christians on tops of mountains beside a number of villages and towns throughout Chin State. Since early 1980s, Chin communities in various villages and towns have erected wooden crosses on mounds and hill tops beside their villages and towns to symbolize their faith in Christianity, and to remind themselves of the fact that Christianity has played an important role in shaping their modern society and culture. In some cases, however, the erection of these crosses were in response to what the Chin regarded was the State-sponsored importation of Buddhism into Chin State with the construction of pagodas and temples in certain urban areas in Chin State which began in the 1970s.

Destruction of crosses and churches started around early 1990’s with the rapid increase in army battalions being established across of Chin State. Since then, almost every cross in all the nine townships in Chin State had been destroyed by the regime. Destruction is usually ordered by the township authorities or by army battalion commanders in whose jurisdiction the cross is erected. After an order is issued, the church or community responsible for erecting the cross is given a timeframe during which they must dismantle the cross. Failure to do so within the given period often meant the cross being destroyed by the authorities and Church leaders being arrested for defiance of order.

While crosses have been removed in several townships, perhaps the most publicized case so far was the removal of a cross in Thantlang Township in January of 1999. The year 1999 marked one hundredth year of Christianity among the Chins. The Centennial Celebration was originally planned for March 15 in Haka, the capital of Chin State where the first American missionaries established their first mission centre in 1899. However, before the official celebration in Haka, advance celebrations were also held locally in various townships under the leadership of local churches. In Thantlang, the celebration was organized jointly by all the different denominations in town from January 1 to 3, 1999. The CHRO reported the accident as follows:

On January 5, when the celebration was over, the organizers erected a Centennial Memorial Cross on a hilltop on Vuichip ridge, located west of the town. Though primarily in remembrance of the early American missionaries, selection of the location for the cross had other significance. In addition to its good view from town, the spot has a spiritual and religious dimension to it. Before the advent of Christianity, Thantlang residents had traditionally believed that Vuichip ridge was the dwelling place of evil spirits and there had been legends surrounding the spirits roaming the ridge. The erection of the cross on that particular location was to signify that evil spirits have been defeated by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross.  The cross was decorated with looking glasses so that it would be more recognizable when it glows with the reflection from the sun.

On the very night the cross was erected, the Township Peace and Development Council ordered the destruction of the cross, compelling the very people who had erected the cross to destroy it. When the people refused, a section of local police were sent to destroy the cross. Six Christian pastors responsible for organizing the Centennial Celebration and the erection of the Memorial cross, Rev. Thawng Kam, Rev. Biak Kam, Rev. Thantu, Rev. Tha Ceu, Rev. Cung Bik and Pastor Beauty Lily were arrested and interrogated by the army.  In response, on January 6, the whole town stage a silent protest by closing down their businesses and refusing to go to work, and by observing a 24-hour fast and prayer vigil in their local churches and homes. Fearing the news of protest might spread to other towns; the authorities shut down telephone connections of Thantlang and arrested 20 more Church leaders. Nevertheless, on January 9, Churches in the Chin State capital, Haka, joined the protest, prompting Chairman of the Chin State Peace and Development Council in Haka to go to Thantlang to end the strike by threatening and intimidating them.

The leaders of the Church, Rev. Thawng Kam and Rev. Biak Kam were arrested, and put into jail without trail.

In addition to destruction of the Chin Christian symbol of cross, the soldiers also disrupted worship services and religious ceremonies, and rounded up people going to Church for forced porters. Moreover, the military has tried to coerce people into converting into Buddhism by targeting Christians for forced labour and other abuses. In many instances, Christian pastors have been physically abused and mocked by the Burmese soldiers. The junta has refused to grant permission to construct new Church buildings and other Christian religious buildings while it has allocated State funds to construct new Buddhist pagodas in various parts of Chin State.

In many major towns in Chin State, partially completed church buildings are still standing unfinished because the State Peace and Development Council does not granted permission to resume the construction. The Carson Memorial Hall was being built in Haka, the capital of Chin State in 1999 by the Haka Baptist Church to be inaugurated on the occasion of one-hundredth anniversary of Christianity among the Chins since the first arrival of American missionaries, Arthur and Laura Carson in late 1890s. The construction was set to be completed before the start of the Centennial Celebration which was scheduled for March 15, 1999.  But the junta halted the construction half-way saying that the Church did not obtain authorization from the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs in Rangoon, although the Hall was constructed within the parameters of Church properties.

As many evidences have pointed out, the Burmese military regime has actively sought after symbolic targets in its campaign of Burmanization and ethnocide against various ethnic groups in the country, and use religious persecution as a means of destroying religious and ethnic identity in the country.


In this paper, I have investigated the root cause of human rights violation and the denial of the rights of religious and cultural minorities, instead of compiling detail account of human rights violations and the denial of democracy in Burma. I have argued that total denial of human rights in Burma began with the rejection of the right of self-determination for non-Burma ethnic nationalities, who joined the Union of Burma voluntarily as equal partner in 1947.

In so doing, I have explored how successive governments of the Union of Burma have abused the rights of religious and cultural minority groups, including the collective rights of self-determination, in the names of “national-building”, “national integration” and maintaining “national sovereignty”. I argued that during parliamentary democracy era, U Nu’s government has adopted state religion of Buddhism as a means of “national integration” by imposing cultural and religious assimilation into the predominant group of Burman/Myanmar Buddhists, as occurred with the promulgation of Buddhism as State Religion in 1961.

While U Nu opted for cultural and religious assimilation into Buddhism as a means of integration, Ne Win removed the rights of the country’s religious and cultural minorities, including all civil and basic human rights, as a means of creating a homogeneous unitary state. U Nu and Ne Win thus complemented each other, although their approaches in depriving cultural and religious minorities of their rights were different in nature. Current military regime also shares the same goal but with slightly different approach; they apply the method religious persecution as a means of destroying ethnic identity, especially against the Chin Christians. In short, ever since General Ne Win took over the state power in 1962, the distinction between the army and state ceased to exist, and gross violations human rights become part of everyday life in Burma.

I maintain, in this paper, that the root of human rights violations in Burma related with constitutional crisis and it must therefore be solved through constitutional means of establishing a democratic federal system of government. A democratic federal system—based on the principle of equality for all member states of the Union, the right of self-determination for all ethnic nationalities, and the democratic rights for all citizens of the Union—is the best means to restore the Union of Burma. Thus, for all the democratic forces and ethnic nationalities in Burma, the ultimate goal of democracy movement is to establish a genuine democratic federal union, where various ethnic nationalities from different religious, racial, cultural and historical backgrounds can live peacefully together.

Lian H Sakhong
Manila (2003-11-10)

To protect and promote human rights and democratic principles