A lot of Shan patriots and as well ordinary Shan citizens have been pondering on how unity could be achieved among the four stakeholder parties, the two Shan armies and two political parties.
They actually did manage to form an umbrella organization with the aim to forge Shan national unity, which should include all sub-ethnic groups within the Shan state as a whole and to be able to speak with one voice. And a more ambitious aim is to forge unity among the various ethnic nationalities within the country that would help empower the building of a federal union.
With this in mind the Committee for Shan State Unity(CSSU) was formed on October 17,2013. The group includes the Shan State Joint Action Committee(SSJAC) member groups. This include the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy(SNLD), the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party(SNDP), the Shan State Progressive Party(SSPP), the Restoration Council of Shan State(RCSS), the Seng Kiao’s People Militia, the New Generation Group(Shan State), the Shan Youth Association, the Shan Nationality Organization-Thailand, Shan community-based organizations and a team of legal consultants.
Following the signing of Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement(NCA) on October 15, 2015, in November some hundreds of the RCSS troops moved up north and armed clashes erupted in Namkham area with the TNLA. And since then the two parties have been on war-footing and clashing on and off.
The animosity between the two Shan armies began with the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA) and RCSS armed clashes in Namkham area, as the SSPP joined in from the side of TNLA in the continuing fight, which is as a political alliance member of the seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee(FPNCC), headed by the United Wa State Army(UWSA).
In the beginning the SSPP participation on the side of TNLA was low-keyed, however, last year the armed confrontation took a new turn as the combined parties openly declared to evict the RCSS from northern Shan State and launched offensives last year, claiming that it is not its territories and should go back to its original south stamping ground, which continues until recently.
This inter-ethnic conflict has resulted in tremendous suffering for the local people, Shan and Palaung alike, and transformed thousands of them into internally displaced persons(IDP).
But luckily, due to the Buddhist monk intervention on April 20,2019, both Shan warring groups withdrew from the front-line and said that they will try to work out a compromise and end the fighting.
Earlier last year, SNDP chief Sai AikPao also chairman of the CSSU during his on year tenure, repeatedly appealed for the two Shan armies to end the armed conflict but were not successful.
In the same vein, on the political front the SNLD and SNDP fusion to become one party representing the Shan have been tried through many meetings during these few years but the effort came to naught, reportedly due to the differences of political stance and ideological thinking.
It is ironic, however, when one comes to think about it, as most of the SNDP members, including its chairman Sai AikPao, were former SNLD members and only make use of the new party name because all its top leaders were jailed and understood only as a way to circumvent the political party registra-tion difficulties and preserved the Shan electoral support base.
As such, we are faced with dire situation where the forging of Shan unity is concerned. Thus, a question arise on what we should do to overcome this challenge. But let us go back a little on contemporary Shan politics before we embark on the unity question, as to why it has disintegrated and how we might be able to salvage it back and energize our Shan national identity to encompass the whole Shan State again, as it did during the foundation of a modern nation of February 7,1947.
Twenty years ago, the now defunct exiled Shan Democratic Union issued a state-ment on the occasion of Shan National Day on February 7, 1999, which precisely outlined the historical context of a Shan nation and founding of modern nation-state, as follows:
- The date 7th February 1947 is a defining moment for us in the record of our history as a modern nation. On that day, Shan princes and the people’s representatives of the Shan States demonstrated their newfound unity to declare it a “Shan National Day” which were followed by the resolutions of “Shan National Anthem”, “Shan National Flag” and the formation of “Shan States Council” on the 11th and 15th of February, 1947 respectively. These had been done without reference to the British colonial overlords, who claimed protec-torship over the Federated Shan States since 1886-87 (one year after the fall of the Burman Kingdom and the Alaungpaya or Gonbaung dynasty).
- The formation of the Shan State Council by Shan leaders autonomously of the British, represents a declaration by the Shan that they are a sovereign, free nation. This bold action constitutes a Shan decla-ration of independence from foreign rule, and the date, 7th February 1947, marks the entry of the Shan people onto the world’s historical stage as a modern nation.
- The people of Shan States and leaders decided in this very year later at Panglong, on the 12th of February, to join with U Aung San and the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League) and leaders of other nationalities, to live together under one flag as co-independent and equal nations. This marks the birth of a nation-state now known as “Burma”.
- Without Panglong, 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.
A far-sighted undertaking between the ruling Saohpas and the people represen-tatives was carried out in 1959, which was belittled by the then home-guard military government of General Ne Win from 1958 to 1960, as being coerced by the Burmese, but in reality the transfer of Saohpas’ hereditary power to the people had been hatched since 1952 among themselves. The decision to open the way for the development of a democratic way of life was unanimously decided to renounce the Saohpas’ hereditary executive powers and privileges was publicly declared on October 25, 1952 by Sao HkunHkio head of the Saohpa Association.
The agreement between the Shan State government and the handing over to the people all powers enjoyed by the Saohpas signed on April 24, 1959 was ratified on April 27, 1959 and officially declared on April 29, 1959, in Taunggyi, which was attended by president U Win Maung, prime minister U Ne Win and head of Shan State Sao HomHpa.
The new Union of Burma formed in January 4, 1948 was despite the prior promises and agreements with ethnic nationality leaders, did not become a genuine federal union, an ambiguity that U Chan Htun, drafter of the constitution, himself later admitted: “Our country, though in theory federal, is in practice unitary”.
In retrospect, the new union has since paid a heavy price for these constitutional failings. As political and inter-ethnic violence continued across the country, 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 in Taunggyi. Following the resolution, the All States Unity Organization was formed by the conference, with Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Arakan, Shan and Mon as members.
And to make the long story short, the military staged a coup on March 2, 1962 while the national conference discussion at Burma Broadcasting Service in Pyay road, which started on February 24, 1962, was still in progress. The pretext of the coup was said to safeguard the union from disintegration, as the then military leader General Ne Win equated federalism with secession and dismemberment of the union. Ironically, now everyone including the military are in agreement that federalization is the way out from the never-ending ethnic conflict and civil war, which has plagued the country since the independence from the British in 1948.
Eroded unity and rebuilding it
Awareness of collective political entity, albeit under the British rule, was evident ever since the Federated Shan States was formed in 1922, even though it might not be the Shan nationalism that we anticipated today.
But the Shan national identity and nation-state awareness were firmly established in 1947 prior to the joint-independence with Burma Proper (Ministerial Burma), together with the Kachin and Chin, from the British in 1948.
During the 14 year parliamentary era, if one minus two years of military caretaker government which would be 12 years, the Shan government was preoccupied with trying to amend the union constitution to become real ethnic-based federal union with equality to safeguard Shan national identity and equal nation-state status with other ethnic states like Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon, Arakan and Chin, including Burma, which prematurely was abruptly halted due to the military coup in 1962. Thus, the Shan national-building in its infant stage came to an abrupt end.
In the aftermath of the military coup suppression of the ethnic nationalities’ aspirations followed, which in turn pushed the ethnic nationalities into armed resistance movements that spread all over the country. And as all know there are now over 20 Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) countrywide.
These all happened also because of the rising global trend of ethno-nationalism, which is instrumental to the formation and empowering of more EAOs, such as UWSA, TNLA, Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) just to name a few. And the Wa, Palaung and Pa-O national state ambition that has to be carved out of the Shan State is now evident and well known to us. This trend also contribute to the erosion of Shan nationalism and nation-state maintenance.
In short, the constitutional crisis after the 1962 military coup, escalating civil war and ethno-nationalism upsurge all contributed to the erosion of Shan national aspirations.
The question now is if we have any solution to stem the tide of Shan national unity erosion. Let us think out aloud on this issue.
A proposal to again energize the Shan national concept has been thought out based on the Federated Shan States model of 1922 with innovation, where each ethnic group with distinct territorial continuity demarcation will have its own ruler or government. This in turn might be able to reduce friction among inter-ethnic groups and able to forge common national identity.
With the build-up of armed resistance groups along ethnic lines like the Wa, Palaung and Pa-O, whose aspirations are to be allotted with national state status, it might seem far-fetched for the time being. But this will be the only way to overcome unending territorial dispute based on ethnic settlement, which in many instances are demographically overlapp-ing or mixed within the Shan State.
Federated Shan States had some 30 big and small statelets and we could create and decentralize as much as we like according to our needs, while all could be linked to the Shan common national identity and also keeping in tact the various ethnic identity in the form of “united in diversity”.
It is noteworthy that during the Federated Shan States period that all non-Shan ethnic groups had their own rulers, such as the Wa, Palaung, Pa-O, Danu and so on.
However, special condition for the Wa existed according to historical fact. The Frontier Areas Committee formed shortly after the signing of Panglong Agreement on February 12, 1947, included a British officer lieutenant colonel D.R. Rees William M.P. as chairman, AFPFL, Karen, Kachin and Shan representatives.
In its March 1947 observation the committee report on “ States and other territorial units” regarding the Wa State wrote: “The administration of this area should be supervised either by the Federal Council or by the government of Federated Shan States until their people were fit to take over the admini-stration of their own area either as a state in the Burma Federation or as a unit of Burma Proper. It was also recommended that the Shan States government rather than the federal authorities would be in the best position to supervise the administration of the Wa States”.
Nevertheless, in order to strive for Shan national aspirations, the majority Tai or Shan within the Shan State will have to get their house in order first and move on to strive for unity.
Unity in Shan context
National unity can mean different things to different people, such as some would interpret it as racial and ethnic unity in a multi-ethnic society and coming together of the political parties.
As such, the former would mean striving for racial or ethnic harmony among all ethnic groups within Shan State through political system and structural agreement and the latter, the fusion or alliance of Shan political parties to mobilize the electorates.
Apart from that a fleeting moment can also be an expression of national unity, which the declaration of “ Shan National Day”, followed by the resolutions of “Shan National Anthem”, “Shan National Flag” and the formation of “ Shan States Council” in February 1947, were the examples. It won’t be a bad idea to be reminded of such fleeting moment, occasionally if not constantly, to wake us up from insensitivity and indifference.
It should also be noted that we are already united in our aspirations to be free, achieve rights of self-determination, democracy and equality. We only need to formulate all of these into a common awareness as a nation to be able to unify. A kind of national congress might be the answer. No doubt, this won’t be a walk in the park. But we could learn from our failure and go ahead with innovation and progressive approach, solving each problem as it comes.
Finally, in going about the task of national unity building it doesn’t need to be “one blood, one voice, one order”, which we all generally understood to be as such, but to embrace the notion of “unity in diversity”, coupled with the motto of “diverse actions, common goals”, as time and again urged by the late Chao TzangYawnghwe, that might bring us nearer to our aspirations.
1. History of the Shan State; by Sai Aung Tun; published by silkworm Books; Chiang Mai, Thailand; 2009.
2. Jump-starting the stalled peace process; by Sai Wansai; Transnational Institute- May 4, 2017.
Editor’s Note: This article first appears in Hsai Jai Tai Shan yearly magazine published by Shan Literature and Culture Association (Yangon) for the year 2019.