Page 1 of 2 Towards a better union in Myanmar
By Matthew J Walton
The 67th anniversary of Union Day has come and gone, marking the 1947 Panglong Conference that brought together Burman, Shan, Kachin, and Chin political leaders and formed the basis for an independent Burma. The "Spirit of Panglong" - its meanings, failures, and promises - haunts the country's current peace talks, which, despite seeming progress in recent weeks with a common position from the ethnic armed groups' negotiating team, could remain stalled if the military refuses to accept a ceasefire agreement that also contains detailed language and timeframes for future political discussions.
At a time like this, with many people calling for a "Second Panglong," it is useful to look back at the history of the Panglong
Conference to examine its dynamics and effects, in order to draw lessons for nation-building in contemporary Myanmar. This article briefly considers 10 lessons from Panglong and their significance for the current peace process, as well as two broader lessons drawn from post-conflict peace-building around the world in the hope of fostering more critical dialogue about Panglong, what it was, what it wasn't, and how it is relevant today.
1. Get it in writing
The Panglong Agreement included the promise that "full autonomy is agreed to in principle." This was a rather vague clause that wasn't actually included in the 1947 constitution implemented after achieving independence from colonial rule under the British. Many non-Burman leaders who attended the conference trusted independence hero General Aung San and hoped that he would honor the informal promises he made to them, such as "If Burma gets one kyat, you will get one kyat."
Unfortunately his assassination in 1947 meant that he never had a chance to do this. Although this wasn't always the case, contemporary political groups seem to have gradually learned this lesson and even the least fruitful ceasefire negotiations these days seem to end with some sort of written agreement, if only an understanding to continue meeting. These written documents will be absolutely necessary to hold parties accountable in the future, both domestically and internationally.
2. Implementation matters
Written agreements are important, but there must also be agreement on how they will be implemented, especially as the legal status of an agreement might not always be clearly enforceable. The 1947 constitution wasn't exactly a federal constitution, but it wasn't necessarily inconsistent with a federal structure. The constitution was implemented in a unitary way, which betrayed the expectations of non-Burman groups. It's also important to note that there have been a number of written ceasefire agreements signed by the Myanmar government and military over the years, many of which have been broken. A written agreement is necessary, but of course not sufficient to ensure that both parties will follow through.
For current political discussions, it will be important to be clear about who will be responsible for implementation. What types of oversight will there be after an agreement and who will enforce it? Additionally, while the wording of any document is important, it will also be necessary to consider whether or not the parties have similar understandings of the intent of the agreements. Assumptions about these key questions resulted in disappointment with the way the Panglong Agreement was incorporated into the 1947 constitution and the way that constitution was implemented.
Additionally, participants will need to consider enforcement mechanisms. If the Tatmadaw or an ethnic armed group violates the terms of a ceasefire, what will the penalty be? Will it be enough to ensure compliance? At a time when Western governments have been dropping or suspending sanctions left and right and encouraging massive aid and investment, it might be prudent to consider explicitly tying some of those benefits to a ceasefire in order to encourage all parties to honor their agreements.
3. Trust is critical …
There was actually another multi-ethnic gathering that took place at Panglong several months before the more famous Panglong Conference. This was an important opportunity used by non-Burman leaders to build trust among themselves. General Aung San had also been traveling around the country in the year leading up to the conference and many non-Burman accounts also reflect a growing trust in his willingness to listen to and consider non-Burman concerns.
A contemporary political settlement would need to acknowledge the difficult truth that this kind of trust does not exist in Myanmar today. After decades of civil conflict, most non-Burman groups do not trust the government or the military, with good reason. Additionally, military divide-and-conquer tactics as well as the failures of various attempted united fronts have eroded trust between many non-Burman groups, making negotiations more complicated. While recognizing the advantages in bargaining collectively, non-Burman groups should not give in to the temptation to suppress dissenting viewpoints within their own ranks in order to present a united front; similarly, neither the government nor the international community should expect or demand a single, unitary "ethnic minority" perspective.
4. …but don't rely on individuals
Many of the non-Burman leaders gradually came to trust General Aung San and, whatever his actual intentions were, when he was assassinated the country was left without a mediating figure. Much of the mainstream media coverage surrounding the current peace talks suggests that many non-Burman leaders have a growing respect for President's Office Minister U Aung Min and trust that he will be a fair negotiator; U Aung Min has also stated this himself. Yet there are several reasons to be concerned with this assumption.
First, there are enough conflicting reports about attitudes towards U Aung Min to suggest that claims that he enjoys the complete trust of the non-Burman groups are overstated. Second, when it comes to a ceasefire (and a possible future political settlement), even though U Aung Min has been appointed as chief negotiator, the military will still likely make any final decisions. Finally, it cannot be known what any individual's true intentions are, what will happen in the next few years, or what U Aung Min's role will be in a future government. All of this makes it very dangerous to rely on an individual in this sort of situation. The best assurance is to design representative, inclusive, and adaptable institutional frameworks that are not reliant on particular charismatic individuals.
5. Language matters
As Chin scholar Lian Sakhong has explained, the Chin delegation was at a disadvantage during the Panglong Conference because they did not have a translator who was familiar with their particular dialect. The British administrator who they were expecting to act as translator was recalled several weeks earlier (there is some debate as to whether he resigned or was fired). Additionally, even though the Shan and Kachin delegates were more familiar with the Burmese language, they were not very well versed in more advanced concepts in constitutional law or the kinds of political settlements that might result in the autonomy they hoped for.
Although political awareness and knowledge has definitely increased among non-Burman communities in the decades since independence, any future negotiations should take into consideration the fact that most non-Burmans will be participating in negotiations using a language that is often not their mother tongue. This is not meant to be a demeaning comment on their abilities to speak Burmese, but simply a reminder that native language status can confer a more powerful bargaining position in negotiations like this; a critical element of negotiations will be the opportunity for non-Burman delegations to evaluate and fine tune the language of any agreements.
More importantly, national political discourse in Myanmar has not only taken place using the Burmese language, but also using predominantly Burman conceptions of politics. If discussions about the future political structure of Myanmar were to take into account, for example, the ways in which Karen and Burman conceptions of "justice" differ from one another or the ways in which Kachin notions of community, family ties and mutual obligations are different from Burman understandings, it could have several positive effects.
First, it would help facilitate agreement on the intent of specific agreements (as mentioned above) by navigating through these different conceptual frameworks. Second, it could provide creative new avenues for political discussion, as non-Burman ideas and practices of politics would become a part of the national dialogue. And, finally, it would contribute to a feeling of inclusion in the state, where non-Burmans might see insights from their own political and social traditions valued as part of a broader national discourse.
6. Inclusion matters
Although Myanmar school textbooks portray Panglong as the moment when all of the country's ethnic groups came together to declare their intentions to join together in a union, the signatories to the agreement were only a few Burman, Shan, Kachin, and Chin leaders. The British required General Aung San to get agreement from the "Frontier Areas," the administrative region of the country that comprised the border areas. While this area was occupied by more than just the Shan, Kachin, and Chin, other groups were excluded for a number of reasons, many of which have been explained by historians and analysts. Beyond the groups that were specifically excluded, many marginalized populations within the Burmans, Shan, Kachin, and Chin were not a part of the discussions.
The question of inclusion will be critical for future political discussions. Who will be included? Who will have the authority to decide who is included? Inter-personal rivalries have often inhibited pan-ethnic solidarity and they have also had an influence on who has been included in recent peace talks and political discussions. How can we determine if certain groups are representative of the populations they claim to represent? Women's groups, for example, have conducted important research and advocacy campaigns in conflict zones, in addition to providing basic services for people in need. However, they have more often than not been excluded from the current peace talks and from most political negotiations between the Burman-led government and non-Burman groups; exclusion like this is absolutely unacceptable given the critical and constructive role of women in building peace in Myanmar and helping to create a more just society.
The initial Panglong Conference sought to bring together different ethnic groups and the assumption is that a future political settlement would also be along ethnic lines. This, however, will not be sufficient in dealing with the wide range of identities and identity conflicts that exist in present day Myanmar. Although it would certainly make the discussions more challenging and complex, the conversation needs to include marginalized populations beyond ethnic groups. These include religious minorities, sexual minorities, and under-represented socio-economic interests, just to name a few.
Additionally, are there Burman groups and perspectives that ought to be included beyond the government, the military, and maybe a few of the prominent democratic opposition groups? What about other identities that are not easily captured by the "ethnic" framework, such as Sino-Myanmar, Burmese of Indian descent, or the Rohingya? While some Burmese may find this suggestion unreasonable, Myanmar's recent history of political exclusion has gone well beyond ethnic identity and a national effort that will contribute to peace and reconciliation must consider the dynamics of marginalization beyond ethnicity.
7. Power dynamics matter
The general political climate at the time of the Panglong Conference was one in which it was clear that the British wished to negotiate a transition to independence as quickly as possible while minimally honoring obligations to their non-Burman allies. This meant that they were willing to work primarily with General Aung San, which gave him a much stronger bargaining position at the conference. Even on the non-Burman side, the negotiations at Panglong were complicated by the prominent role played by hereditary leaders such as the Shan saophas (sawbwas) and Kachin duwas, who enjoyed a high degree of traditional legitimacy.
Those concerned with the ways in which power dynamics can silence marginalized voices ought to be asking a number of questions regarding the organization of future political discussions. What will the structure of the meeting(s) be? Where will they take place? What will be the methods of discussion? Will they privilege men or older people, as is common in Myanmar society? Will they privilege those with Western education, fluency in English, or law and politics degrees? In essence, these questions boil down to one: who gets to assess what is and is not a valuable contribution to the discussion process?
While the discussion currently seems to revolve around degrees of political and economic autonomy for non-Burman states, how will minority groups be treated more generally? This refers not only to ethnic minorities in Burman divisions, but also to non-Burman minorities in other states, such as the Shan population living in Kachin State. Attention to power dynamics will also force participants to contend with an uncomfortable question: How much bargaining power do non-Burman groups really have in the current political situation?
While there is undoubtedly pressure on the government and the military to address the "ethnic" issue in Myanmar, international actors are putting equal, if not greater, pressure on non-Burman groups to seize the current opportunity and sign agreements, no matter how unsatisfactory they may be. Many non-Burman leaders at the first Panglong Conference underestimated the degree to which the British were eager to end their colonial involvement in Burma; current leaders cannot make the same mistake and international actors ought to be encouraging a process that pays attention to power inequalities and the demands of justice.
Power dynamics also matter in assessing where real decision-making authority lies. Can U Aung Min and his negotiating team make credible commitments on behalf of the government and the Tatmadaw? Will the military agree to abide by the terms of a ceasefire and what is its promise worth considering they have violated agreements in the past? Persistent fears about the degree to which the military is invested in the process of political negotiation also strengthen the hand of the government side. Government negotiators can present themselves as the "good guys," attempting to blunt potential roadblocks from the military while also pressing non-Burman groups to give in and accept a one-sided "compromise."
8. Take your time
General Aung San understood that the British wanted to wash their hands of the situation in Burma after World War II and took advantage of that fact to push for immediate independence. Not only did this put pressure on the non-Burman groups to acquiesce quickly to an agreement, it also resulted in a rather undemocratic process. For example, given the small window of opportunity to get agreement from the Frontier Areas leaders to join the Union of Burma, Aung San's political party, the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League), chose to work primarily with the hereditary leaders who enjoyed greater standing in the eyes of the British administration rather than more democratically-inclined allies such as the Shan State People's Freedom League and the Kachin Youth League.
The current situation has many similar elements. While both the Myanmar government and many of the non-Burman political and armed groups have become more democratic over time, there are still many individuals and organizations within these communities that have been pushing for more transparency, inclusiveness, and democratic decision-making. However, with the pressure to get a "quick win" before the 2015 elections, it is likely that a slower, more consultative process will be passed over in favor of a settlement that wins the approval of international observers, but doesn't effectively respond to the concerns non-Burmans have expressed over the years.
Additionally, the growing sentiment in the international community that there is a fast-closing window of opportunity for political negotiation puts greater pressure on non-Burman groups to come to the table, even when the offerings from the government side are less than ideal. This discourse (which is also reinforced by some members of non-Burman groups seeking to push for peace and a quick settlement) paints reluctant groups and individuals as "spoilers" who are inhibiting the chances for peace.