Democracy Movement Towards Federal Union: The Role of UNLD in The Struggle for Democracy and Federalism 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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