Burma’s Union Day, a vehement reminder for restoration of equal rights

Today is the 63rd anniversary of Burma’s Union Day. And it comes with a jarring note for it is a vehement reminder for restoration of equal rights between the majority and minority. On the basis of this the majority Burman leader Gen Aung San and ethnic Kachin, Chin and Shan leaders signed the Panglong Agreement in Shan State on February 12, 1947 to form the Union of Burma.  

021210-aung-san-and-kachin-womenUnfortunately, the Panglong Agreement was ignored by successive Burman-led regimes.   Currently, the Snr-Gen Than Shwe-led military junta, has been clinging to power oblivious of the rights of minorities.

The Panglong Agreement saw to the country’s independence from British rule on January 4, 1948 but the newly liberated country was under the control of majority Burmans. There were two classes of citizens--- the majority Burman in the first category, or the rulers of country and ethnic minorities in the second, or who are ruled by the majority.

In 1947, before independence, the country’s first constitution was drafted but it did not include all charters in the Panglong Agreement, which guaranteed equal rights and self-determination status for minorities.

According to the 1947 constitution, Burman politician U Nu became the first Prime Minister and ruled the country till 1962.

U Nu proposed Buddhism as the national religion of Burma in 1958, ranged against ethnic Christians--- Kachin, Karen, Chin and others. One year after U Nu’s rule, ethnic armed struggles were triggered off one after another for self-determination because U Nu did not rule in accordance with the constitution and failed to give equal rights to minorities.

052009-aung-san-suu-kyiThe three main ethnic minorities started armed struggles during U Nu’s rule--- the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1949, Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in 1955, New Mon State Party (NMSP) in 1958 and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in 1961.

U Nu sold three Kachin districts namely Hpimaw, Kangfang and Gawlum, comprising an area of approximately 153 sq-km to China in 1960 against vociferous opposition by Kachin people and the Kachin State government.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was finally formed after U Nu’s Parliament repeatedly denied the Kachin State government its rights of governance and increased its control.

In 1962, General Ne Win grabbed power from U Nu but Burmanization (changing all ethnic minorities to Burmans) and the U Nu-proposed Buddhism as the main religion in the country, were increasingly implemented in minority states by using the Burmese military known as the Tatmadaw by Gen Ne Win and his successors of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

In a calculated way and at the same time, ethnic minorities were systematically and gradually shunted from playing lead roles in governments. Their national, cultural and religious identities were morphed by successive Burman-led central governments since independence and despite ethnic armed struggles.

Between 1962 and1988, Gen Ne Win ruled the country with his Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) but he denied equal rights and self-determination of states to ethnic minorities. He launched wars against all ethnic armed groups and the China-backed Communist Party of Burma (CPB).

In 1988, the student-led countrywide pro-democracy uprising toppled Gen Ne Win’s BSPP alright but the Tatmadaw the so-called State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) led by Gen Saw Maung assumed power by severely cracking down on the demonstrations.  The people demanding democracy and restoration of minority rights took a back seat.

After 1989, ethnic armed groups signed ceasefire agreements one by one with the SLORC.  The KIO also signed a ceasefire agreement with the SLORC on February 24, 1994 hoping to resolve disputes by political means.

In 1992 Gen Saw Maung unexpectedly resigned from the military leadership and Snr-Gen Than Shwe took over.  Four years into his rule, Gen Saw Maung did nothing about equal rights between the majority Burman and ethnic minorities and its armed groups.

092909-than-shweIn 1997, Snr-Gen Than Shwe changed the name of SLORC to State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and announced the so-called seven step road map to disciplined-democracy.

Under the former purged intelligence chief and Prime Minister of SPDC, Gen Khin Nyunt’s initiated the seven-step roadmap for disciplined-democracy in 2003 and the National Convention for drafting the country’s new constitution was held from 1993 to 2007.

During the National Convention, the 13 allied ethnic ceasefire groups including KIO, NMSP, United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) proposed to the Burman-led SPDC to draft a constitution relevant to the genuine union of Burma but it was rejected. The newly drafted constitution guarantees the military supreme power in the executive, legislative and judiciary for good.

The junta also rejected outright the United Nations proposal for a tripartite dialogue---- between the junta, the opposition and ethnic organizations for ushering in democracy in the country.

The junta-centric new constitution was forcibly approved in a constitutional referendum in May 2008 ignoring the deadly Cyclone Nargis hit Irrawaddy River Delta areas in southern Burma and which killed tens of thousands of people in early May 2009.

Burmese (Burman) generals are now looking at an appropriate time to announce the date for the countrywide elections. At the same time all ethnic armed groups have been under pressure to disarm since April last year.

The KIO chairman Lanyaw Zawng Hra addressing the 49th anniversary of the Kachin Revolution Day on February 5, said, “The Panglong Agreement has to be relived for rebuilding a genuine union of Burma”.

Nawdin Lahpai is editor of Kachin News Group.