Even though coronavirus epidemic has been making the headlines and doesn’t seem to become a yesterday news anytime soon, having a tremendous impact on Burma or Myanmar , and to forget the ICJ provisional measures order, constitutional crisis facing the country, starting since 1948 independence from the British, still has not been resolved until today.
It is important to know that the country we all know as Burma, officially known as Union of Burma from 1948 to 1962, is a country made up of at least four countries or political entities. They were Kachin and Chin Hills; Federated Shan States and Burma Proper or Ministerial Burma, as they were then called.
While many non-Bamar ethnic nationalities argued that they were not involved in the historic Panglong Agreement, signed in 1947, which has been designated as “Union Day”, the reality is that Mon, Karen and Arakan areas and peoples were all included under Ministerial Burma, saved for the Karenni State, which was an independent political entity.
The British government recognized and guaranteed the independence of the Karenni State in 1875 treaty with Burmese King Mindon Min, by which both parties recognized the area as belonging neither to Burma nor to Great Britain. As a result, the Karenni States were never fully incorporated into British Burma.
Shan National Day and Union Day
Shan National Day was promulgated on 7 February 1947, which demonstrated the unity of Shan princes and the people’s representatives of the Federated Shan States and declared, followed by the resolutions of “Shan National Anthem”, “Shan National Flag” and the formation of “Shan State Council” on the 11 and 15 of February, 1947 respectively.
The Panglong Conference that followed on 12 February 1947 produced the Panglong Agreement between the Bamar or Burmese State (Ministerial Burma) represented by Gen Aung San and the ethnic nationalities Chin, Shan and Kachin to form a union on equal basis.
It is not an exaggeration to state that without Panglong Agreement or Accord, signifying the intent and willingness of the free peoples and nations of what could be termed British Indochina, there would have not been born the Union of Burma in 1948.
It is also not an exaggeration to say that constitutional crisis begins immediately after the independence from the British in 1948.
The new Union of Burma, despite the prior promises and agreements with ethnic nationality leaders, did not become a genuine federal union, an ambiguity that Chan Htun himself later admitted: “Our country, though in theory federal, is in practice unitary.”
In 1961 the Shan State government produced a resolution widely known as “The Shan Federal Proposal” that was a legally-based initiative to try and right the obvious weaknesses in the 1947 constitution. This proposal was unanimously adopted by the Shan State government on 24 January 1961 and subsequently endorsed by delegates, all of whom were non-Bamar, at the All States Conference on 16 June 1961 in Taunggyi.
The ethnic nationalities tried to resolve the political grievances through parliamentary channel. But on 2 March 1962, Gen. Ne Win staged his military coup, suspending the constitution, dissolving parliament and arresting U Nu and leaders from different political and ethnic nationality backgrounds. From then on, Myanmar was ruled by successive military governments – the Revolutionary Council, Burma Socialist Programme Party, State Law and Order Restoration Council and State Peace and Development Council – until 2011 when the quasi-civilian government under President Thein Sein was installed.
And now under the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led civilian-military regime, a constitutional amendment, drafted by the military is being pursued, which concentrates on gradual withdrawal of the military representation and not at all addressing on paving ways to achieve an accepted federal union. Thus, it is clear where the NLD priority stands.
The 2008 military-drafted Constitution allows the military to be allotted with 25% MP seats, without election, plus a freehand to run the ministries of home, defense and border affairs, including a veto power in determining constitutional amendment as a whole. Accordingly, any amendment has to pass the first hurdle of more than 75% MP votes, which categorically is impossible to overcome, as 25% of the parliamentary seats are occupied by the military.
To make it short, the aspirations of the ethnic nationalities have not been adequately addressed and the whole NLD deliberation looks like just a power struggle between the Bamar political elite and the Bamar-dominated military.
It is all the more unjustified and improper to leave out the ethnic nationalities from negotiating process of political settlement that affects them, when they are made up of more than 40% of the population and the land area they inhabited covers about 70% of the country’s total landmass.
Solution in sight?
After more than 58 years or nearly six decades, we are nowhere near to resolve the constitutional crisis. We have been beating around the bush for so long and never ever have the vision to ask critical questions on how to overcome the obstacles, except only muddling through all these years.
The recent political tug of war between the NLD and the military or Tatmadaw is the power distribution of “who gets what, when and how” totally disregarding the ethnic nationalities aspirations of equitable and justified federal union.
According to Harold Lasswell definition of politics, “who gets what, when and how” has encapsulated political behavior around the world, with politicians being driven by political positions, resource distribution and out-competing their competitors.
From the Tatmadaw point of view, 2008 Constitution cannot be altered, at least concerning the basic structure that would dilute its supremacy position. But the NLD is also determined to tone down the military supremacy position by implementing gradual withdrawal of its parliamentary allotted seats within three legislature period, which definitely will be met with massive resistance.
However, in this political tug of war, the ethnic nationalities are sidelined intentionally either because they are seen as a sort of colonial subject or permanent subordinate, as both the Bamar political elite and military believed that the present existing country originated from the Burmese (Myanmar) empire since time “immemorial”.
In contrast, the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities take it that the emergence of the new political entity, the Union of Burma, is the product of 1947 Panglong Agreement or treaty between them and the Burma Proper and the joint-independence achieved from the British in 1948.
In sum, if the powers that be in Naypyitaw wants to achieve reconciliation and political settlement, it has to think in terms of a tripartite dialogue that includes the government, Tatmadaw and the ethnic nationalities on equal basis; not only giving a semblance of equal negotiating partner, which is the case with ongoing peace negotiation process that has now stalled for more than a year. Apart from this, the Bamar political class and the military will have to do away with their concept of colonial master posture and that the country stems from immemorial Burmese empire.
But if accommodation of the ethnic nationalities as equal partner will continue to be denied and the said wrong concept, regarding the emergence of the country, will still be harbored by the Bamar political class and military, there is little hope that we can overcome the constitutional crisis, even if we continue to hold Union Day celebration with pomp and splendor, year in and year out.