By Salai Za Ceu Lian
Noticeably, the recent declaration of Shan’ independence is shaking the whole pro-democracy movement of the day in the conflict-ridden Union of Burma. The Union of Burma or its conventional name “Burma” has been plagued by the internal conflicts especially since its independence from the British in 1948. While dealing with the conflict of Burma, it is so important to have a clear understanding of how the Union of Burma was founded.
Therefore, the founding of the Union of Burma needs to be recalled in brief. We recall and study history not just to blame ourselves for the mistakes we might have made in the past, but in order to avoid and not to repeat those past mistakes in the future.
Based on the historical facts, the Union of Burma came into existence through the Panglong agreement, the historic accord that was signed on February 12, 1947, in Panglong, Shan State by those legitimate representatives from the pre-colonial independent countries: the Shan, the Kachin, the Chin and that of the Ministerial Burma also known as the Burma Proper. To better put it, the independent Chin, the Shan, and the Kachin nationals co-founded the Union on an equal footing with a vision of founding the stable Union.
Today, the Panglong accord, which was signed on the equal footing, stands as the fundamental foundation and the legal cornerstone of the Union itself, and as a result, the signing date of Panglong accord is observed as the national holiday, the Union Day. We must stress the fact that the term “equality” or “equal footing” fully signified and recognized the equal status of those founding members of the Union. Meaning, regardless of the size of the population of each region joining the Union, no single signatory nation of the agreement is superior or inferior to the rest of the other co-founding members of the Union.
As a matter of fact, in the pre-colonial period, these nations were historically independent, living side by side with the political administrative system of their own under their respective legitimate leaders. The historical fact should be noted once again that no King of Burma had ever rule or conquered these nations. Only the British expansionist conquered them separately from Burma – Burma Proper.
A clear interpretation and essence of the Panglong Agreement was made very clear by a native Chin scholar and the leading politician, Dr. Lian Hmung Sakhong in the follwoing. He eloquently put it, “The essence of the Panglong agreement- the Panglong Spirit- was that the Chin, Kachin, and the Shan did not surrender their rights of self-determination and sovereignty to the Burman. The Chin, Kachin, and the Shan 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 [1*]. The preamble of Panglong agreement also 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”.
On a similar question, a native Shan scholar, a political scientist, Late Dr. Choa Tzang explained, “The meaning of Panglong is clear, made clear by U Aung San (formerly Bogyoke) and leaders of the ruling AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League) party. The meaning is none other than that the Shan, Kachin, Chin and other nationalities agreed — jointly and unitedly. Here again, the implication is that the Pyidaungzu (the Union) that came into being in 1948 is made up of co-independent and equal states ” [2*]. To have a clear picture of the creation and joining of the Union by the non-Burman ethnic groups, we have to understand that the non-Burman national ethnic groups did not relinquish their national sovereignty.
Rather, strict interpretation of the terms of the agreement, the true essence of the Panglong accords emphatically expressed the mutual recognitions of national sovereignty, their national right of self-determination, and equal status among those founding members of the Union. Therefore, the essence and true spirit of Panglong is to be interpreted as the treaty that fully recognized the equal status and distinct national identity among the Kachin, Karrenni, Karen, Chin, Mon, Burman, and Arakans. Given the fact that Burma is a multi-ethnic country, in order to bring the deeply rooted crisis of Burma to an end, it is necessary that each region’s leaders mutually accept the principles of national equality, and the sovereignty of each region. This would enable the Union of Burma to achieve a prosperous, peaceful and democratic country under the proposed system of federalism if we choose to establish a stable Union.
The Shan’s declaration of Independence: : Whenever we make an arguments about the political issues of Burma, we repeatedly stress the crucial importance of the Panglong agreement and the necessity of respecting the true spirit of the birth of Panglong Agreement because this historic accord between the founding fathers of the Union of Burma only is the legal entity/contract that binds the nation together. What we need to note here also was that the signing of Panglong agreement was totally voluntary, which means any region joining the Union can secede from the Union and be a sovereign nation.
It is totally up to the people of the joining region to have an ultimate say for their own destination. No other member of Union has any authority to determine the future of the seceded State from the Union. That is the very reason, in our modern time, political thinkers and advocates of the model of democracy are putting their full emphasis on the question of self-determination and the need to understand what the term ” legitimacy and mandate” means. With regards to the recent declaration of Shan independence, the ultimate decision is and has to be made by the Shan themselves alone and nobody else. No foreigners should have a say in this matter.
During the revolutionary period and pro-democracy movement like today, it is understandable that there are diverse ideological confrontations over the very question of Shan declaring independence. Not only among the pro-democratic forces of Burma, but even within the inner circle of the intra-ethnic Shans themselves, there could be an ideological differences and diverse political standpoints. It is totally acceptable. We can see a clear example like the un-identical political viewpoints and ideological split-up between the Burma Communist Party and Anti-fascist People’s Freedom League over the question of how to attain independence from British during the struggle for Burma’s independence. The point is that we should not be surprised even if there are different opinions over the current example of the Shan.
In fact, there are crucial political realities that associate with the Shan’s declaration of being free nation at this point for which we have to full understand and respect the wills. In doing so, any critic of the Shan’s movement should refrain from being too judgmental and intrusive for the internal matters exclusively related to the Shan. Likewise, one should also be very careful to avoid using the phrase like “the Shan demands Independence”.
They declare independence by means of exercising their inherent national rights – Right of Self-Determination and no need to demand for it.
Why should the Shan have to demand?
From NLD or SPDC? Under what conditions and circumstances, the Shan has to do so?
Whether the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Suu or State Peace and Development Coucil (SPDC) has no right or authority to judge the destiny of the Shan peoples.
In real sense, they are foreigners. Quite shockingly, the recent statement of NLD in opposing the Shan’s movement was a bizarre example, which indeed was totally unacceptable. So was the SPDC’s condemnation on the Shan initiatives.
A foreigner should stay away from the internal affairs of the sovereign nation- who has every legitimate reasons, supreme power, and full mandate to determine their own future- for particular questions like such as the Shan.
Let us be very clear about that. The Shan peoples have absolute rights to materialize any policy they see fit and take whatever actions they deem relevant and necessary with regards to the political fate of their own future.
To simplify it, they can do whatever they like, but cannot make man a woman. We must fully acknowledge and respect their divine rights of national sovereignty and their self-determination.
Wishfully speaking, if there could be a plebiscite or national referendum for all the Shan peoples to assemble and vote over the question of such kind – declaring the Independence for the Shan or joining the Union of Burma under the proposed system of federalism – that would be so desirable. Unfortunately, such arrangement seems unlikely to take place under the current military regime.
– Chinland Guardian –[1*] Lian Hmung Sakhong. Democracy movement towards federal union: the role of UNLD in the struggle for democracy and federalism in Burma. Thailand: UNLD Press, May, 2001 [2*]Yawnghwe, Chao-Tzang. “Federalism: Putting Burma Back Together Again,” Legal Issues on Burma Journal No. 10 (Burma Lawyers’ Council), May 1999.
Salai Za Ceu Lian -A student at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is currently Secretary of Burmese Community Organization of Manitoba. He is also an assistant General Secretary for the Chin National League for Democracy (Exile), a political party that won 3 Parliamentary seats in Chin State during the 1990 general elections in Burma. He was a former Chin Youth representative at the United Nationalities Youth League (UNYL), multi-ethnic youth alliance based in Thailand, a former General Secretary of Chin Students’ Union, and was a former Assistant General Secretary of the Committee for Non-violent Action for Burma (CNAB) based in India. He also works as Associate Editor for Chinland Guardian and Rhododendron News, a bi-monthly human rights newsletter published by Chin Human Rights Organization.