MANAGING BURMA’S ETHNIC CONFLICT: Subjugation and suppression lead to secession urge (Part I)

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With the ethnic conflict war of more than 72 years, a time span as old as the country’s independence from the British when in 1948 it became a country, the end of it is nowhere in sight.

The slow burning civil war, with on and off intensity periodically, has now taken a new turn with the Myanmar or Burma’s military determined to crush or subjugate all ethnic armed organizations, one way or the other, which have been fighting the Bamar-dominated successive governments continuously until today.

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Aung San Suu Kyi sits for a group photo during talks with representatives of ethnic groups to mark the 70th anniversary of Myanmar Union Day in Panglong, southern Shan State, Feb. 12, 2017. Credit rfa.org

Total annihilation has always been the dream policy of the Tatmadaw or the country’s military leaders but never able to realize and now under the National League for Democracy (NLD) civilian-military regime, it is again choosing the war path, while paying lip-service to the stalled and stagnated nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA)-based peace negotiation process. In other words, the Tatmadaw and as well the civilian government are making use of the double-pronged strategy of holding fire in one hand and water in another; or shall we say “carrot” and “stick” approach. It has never been serious to achieve a long-lasting solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict with genuine “political will” to be on equal basis by establishing a federal union system of governance, which will cater befittingly and pragmatically to a multi-ethnic state. 

All it wants, now also including the civilian-led NLD regime, is to roll out a semblance of negotiated settlement process when, in fact, it is pushing for either negotiated surrender or outright disbandment of the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), despite the ongoing but stagnated NCA-based peace negotiation process.

In short the NLD is actively only promoting its political agenda to be able to cling on to power, even though it is not vested with full political administrative power as the Tatmadaw is privileged with 25 percent appointed seats within all levels of the parliament and the absolute control of home, defense and border affairs ministries, granted by the military-drafted constitution of 2008. However, the NLD didn’t make any tangible move in its entire legislature period to pave way or empower the federal system of governance, to realize the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities’ aspirations.

For example it was even against the amendment of Article 261 (b), which preferably should enable the ethnic state parliaments choose their own chief ministers, without having to ask the president, who is vested with power to choose chief ministers and has the absolute say on the appointment.

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Peace Process Steering Committee (11/2020), Nay Pyi Taw. – Credit NCA-S EAO

And earlier, when the NLD came to power in 2016, to the disappointment of  many it made use of the presidential power to appoint its own NLD chief ministers in Shan and Arakan states, even though its could have given the former ethnic political party allies a hand or empowerment as coalition partners.

Thus, its former political alliance members Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and Arakan National Party (ANP),  predecessor of former Arakan League for Democracy  and Rakhine Nationalities Development Party combined during the military dictatorship times, in which the former was member of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP) headed by NLD, were conveniently abandoned to the dismay of ethnic nationalities in general.

In 2015 elections, SNLD came out second, NLD third and USDP first in Shan State election, while the ANP came out first in Arakan State election.

The NLD could have formed a coalition government and appoint SNLD as chief minister in Shan State. In Arakan State, it could have let the ANP formed government and give it the chief minister post. But the NLD chose to take all the chief minister positions and formed NLD-led government in all states and regions. 

These were the undertakings that pinpointed the NLD abandonment of its former ethnic political party allies. But this is hardly the only negative actions undertaken by the NLD, where the ethnic nationalities’ interest are concerned.

Quite recently, in April this year, in a statement State Counselor Office praised the Tatmadaw as protector of the people in its fight against the Arakan Army (AA) openly and condemned the AA as destructive elements harming and destroying public lives, which is highly controversial and debatable.

Earlier, State Counselor Office made an announcement, when the AA on 4 January 2019 attacked four border police outposts—Kyaung Taung, Nga Myin Taw, Ka Htee La and Kone Myint—in northern Buthidaung Township, killing  13 police and injuring 9 others, confirming that the Tatmadaw would be allowed to use air force and all necessary backup to crush the AA, according to  Maj-Gen Tun Tun Nyi, vice chairman of the Tatmadaw true news information team delivered at  a press conference on 18 January 2019.

These actions made clear that she had absolutely abandoned her hitherto mediator posture in the conflict between the Tatmadaw and the AA and sided with the former, which is seen as an extension against all other EAOs.

This leave the EAOs with only the wishy-washy NCA-based peace process which isn’t going anywhere, given the repeated attacks on Karen National Union (KNU) and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), which are the real engine-heads and the only biggest two armed NCA signatories. And this has been the real reason behind the two years of stalled peace process, as both groups withdraw from the peace talks.

Besides, the NLD effort through the parliament to amend the constitution was a total failure because the military was able to block its amendment proposals by its 25 percent veto vote rights given by the 2008 military-drafted constitution. In process it didn’t even touch any agenda or paragraph that would have paved way for federalization. 

Min Aung Hlaing
Myanmar’s General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces. Photo: scmp.com

The Tatmadaw position is quite clear and that is surrender and disbandment of the EAOs, perhaps with minimum devolution of power to appease the ethnic political parties (EPPs) but a far cry from equitable federal union.  In general its position is the military-drafted 2008 Constitution is federal enough and only minor amendments might be necessary. 

The case in point was, the military in March of this year tabled an amendment proposal, Article 261(b) to let the ethnic state and region parliaments decide who could be chief minister in states and regions, without having to ask for the president endorsement or green light. This was, however, rejected by NLD and the proposal didn’t even sail through the first hurdle in the parliament. But by granting a small concession to ethnic states would have signaled that the NLD is for power decentralization or minimum devolution of power, but unfortunately it has chosen to go against the amendment.

While the EPPs weren’t thankful to the military bloc, as it was seen as just a fiasco to appease them and not out of genuine wish for federalization, they were angered that the NLD blocked the proposal.

Given such political circumstances and hopeless situation to better their lives, including the realization of their aspirations to be equal partners in the union, many have now thought that a total independence or separation from Burma may be the only way out. 

In fact, almost all of the EAOs have started out with the aim of independence but later modified their goals as rebuilding the federal union, due to the unfavorable international climate after the end of Cold War. But now with the increased oppression pressure, gross human rights violations and chosen war path of the Tatmadaw in ethnic states to subdue the EAOs and end the conflict, they have again reconsidered the way of separation or secession from Bamar-dominated, so-called union and to eventually form a confederation among themselves. 

In fact, the 1962 military coup by General Ne Win in the name of saving the country from falling apart due to the then Shan State government spear-headed federal amendment proposal, effectively nullified the legal bond between the non-Bamar ethnic states and the Bamar State or Burma Proper or Ministerial Burma (as was known during the British colonial days), which was cemented by 1947 Panglong Agreement together with the Union of Burma Constitution.

Thus, it could be legally argued that the 1948 Union of Burma is no more in existence that was based on “voluntary union” and the country we now called Myanmar or Burma is merely a “forced union” at gun point by military occupation of the ethnic states by the Bamar military or the Tatmadaw.

In other words, we are now back to pre-Panglong era in a legal sense. Accordingly, the Bamar status changed from being a partner to occupier and oppressor overnight and the EAOs are waging a defensive resistance war against the intruder.

Under such circumstances let us look at the possibilities of whether the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities political goal or aspirations in the direction of secession and confederation are tenable or realizable in today’s international political landscape.

# End of Part I.

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