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)


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