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Panglong II: What’s in it for Burma’s ethnic minorities?

Aung San Suu Kyi made promises of peace a central platform of the NLD's election campaign. Here she is seen addressing a crowd, mainly made up of ethnic peoples, at a rally in Shan State in September 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Burma’s national League for Democracy (NLD) government has announced a 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC), scheduled for the end of August, to address the country’s decades-long ethnic conflict and the need for national reconciliation. The idea for this 21CPC was first mentioned by Aung San Suu Kyi, who as state counsellor is now the de facto leader of the government, in late 2010.

Suu Kyi has said the 21CPC and the Union Peace Conference (UPC), noted in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), are one and the same. It has also been reported that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw (Burma’s armed forces) wants such talks to be in accordance with the NCA.

While Suu Kyi has stated that political and security affairs would be emphasised during the 21CPC to make peace negotiations more effective, it is not exactly clear as to Suu Kyi’s purpose(s) for the 21CPC. Will it be a public relations event of information sharing and confidence building, or the belated implementation of the unfulfilled promises of her father, independence hero General Aung San, in the Panglong Agreement signed on 12 February 1947?

The 1947 Panglong Agreement gave the right to “full autonomy and internal administration” to certain ethnic groups in return for becoming part of the new Union of Burma. Without this agreement by the ethnic people, there would have been no Union of Burma or no Republic of the Union of Myanmar today.

Because the ethnic people were rightly worried the Burmans would not keep their word, Aung San gave the Shans and Karenni the right to secede from the Union after 10 years. This ethnic right of secession was seized from them through the 2 March 1962 coup by General Ne Win. While the ethnic people honored their end of the bargain by voluntarily joining to form the Union of Burma, the Burmans have yet, over the past 70 years, to honor their side of the commitment.

During talks at a recent Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee meeting, Suu Kyi attached greater importance to a “Panglong Spirit” rather than to the Panglong Agreement itself. Such a Panglong Spirit is meant by her to be the same ethnic unity and cooperation which resulted in independence and the establishment of the Union of Burma.

But is it a Panglong Spirit that honors the promises given by her father and the Burmans to the ethnic people to induce them to join with the Burmans to form the Union of Burma?  Is it a Panglong Spirit that honors the “full autonomy and internal administration” embodied within the 1947 Panglong Agreement through equitable political, administrative, fiscal, economic/resource, and security-sector power sharing with the ethnic people within a federal system of government?

This writer believes that Suu Kyi’s definition of the Panglong Spirit is the same as the Tatmadaw’s Three Causes and its calls on ethnic minorities to “give up your arms and return to the legal fold — you will be better for it”. Her “Panglong Spirit” does not mean keeping the Panglong Agreement promises of her father and the Burmans for ethnic self-autonomy/federalism.

In addition to understanding the purpose(s) and intended outcome(s) of the 21CPC, there are other unanswered questions which should be considered before the ethnic armed groups (EAOs) agree to participate in the 21CPC:

The EAOs, apart from the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA, have all accepted the terms of the NCA. The non-NCA signers only want it to be fully inclusive before signing. With this in mind, consider the following:

  1. Aung San gave the right to secede after ten years to the Shans and Karenni in the 1947 Panglong Agreement should the Burmans not live up to the Agreement. The Burmans still have not done so; yet the Shans, Karenni, and by implicit ethnic extension, the other EAOs are all ignoring this transgression. By agreeing to the Three Causes in the NCA, and not explicitly receiving “full autonomy and internal administration’’ in return, the EAOs are all guilty of giving away this bargaining option to secede.
  2. The EAOs did not add transitional justice to the NCA, either for past or future war crimes/crimes against humanity, committed by all armed groups including the Tatmadaw. Those who have been killed, maimed, raped, and dispossessed in the past and now in the future by the Tatmadaw are forgotten by the EAOs.
  3. The EAOs did not add international ceasefire monitors in the NCA, giving rise to further Tatmadaw impunity for continued human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and war crimes as well as ceasefire violations, especially strengthening tactical positions and military capabilities in ceasefire areas.

In short, the EAOs gave away much in the NCA, but received nothing substantial in return. If they participate in the 21CPC without the promise of federalism and security sector reform, they now will give the Burmans and the Tatmadaw a public relations victory. This will also further weaken the EAOs’ bargaining position and most importantly, betray their people who have been denied equal rights with the Burmans and been killed, maimed, raped, and dispossessed by the Tatmadaw.

Moreover, should the non-NCA signatories go to the 21CPC without the inclusion of the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA, they would be hypocritical, since they have previously stated they would not sign the NCA unless the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA are permitted to do so.

Thus if the 21CPC does not result in successful amendments to the 2008 Constitution in respect to federalism and tangible security sector reform, why should the EAOs go to the 21CPC? If this is not the political negotiations mentioned in the NCA from which federalism can be an outcome, why should the EAOs go to the 21CPC?

The EAOs should only participate in the 21CPC if they jointly set the agenda with the government/Tatmadaw to address federalism and security-sector reform which will result in corresponding successful amendments to the 2008 Constitution. If the government/Tatmadaw refuse to agree, the EAOs should not participate in the 21CPC. Should the government/Tatmadaw agree to negotiate federalism and security-sector reform within the 21CPC agenda, but fail to do so in the Conference, the EAOs should then walk out en masse. Either of these outcomes would give the public relations victories to the EAOs.

If the government/Tatmadaw do agree to negotiate federalism and security-sector reform, the following are examples of possible outcomes of the 21CPC for constitutional amendments that would show the sincerity of both the government and the Tatmadaw toward national reconciliation, confidence building, and commitment to the 1947 Panglong Agreement:


Security Sector Reform:

Having said the foregoing, it has been reported that at a recent meeting with Suu Kyi, the NCA signatories agreed to attend the 21CPC. The United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army, non-NCA signatories, have just agreed to participate in the 21CPC. The remaining non-NCA EAO signatories have not yet indicated if they will attend the 21CPC. A pre-21CPC meeting of both NCA and non-NCA EAO signatories is to be held in Mai Jayang, Kachin State, in mid-July to discuss the 21CPC.

At the pre-21CPC meeting, the EAOs should consider what has been mentioned above and not attend the 21CPC if this Conference will not be used to address federalism and security sector reform in the 21CPC, with corresponding successful amendments to the 2008 Constitution. The failure of the government and Tatmadaw to use the 21CPC in this respect would reflect a strong lack of commitment for genuine national reconciliation. Thus, the EAOs need to understand “when enough is enough” at the political table and pursue other means to secure self-autonomy and protection from the Tatmadaw’s predatory behavior.

Without the possibility of victory at the political table, victory must be sought on the battlefield. Victory on the battlefield will not come to the EAOs from defensive fighting in the ethnic states — one can not win at football by only defending one’s goal and playing in one’s half of the field. In football, one must play in the opponent’s half of the field and attack their goal to achieve victory in the game. Similarly for the EAOs to achieve victory on the battlefield, they must be offensive and bring the fighting to the Burmans in their lands to either overthrow the Tatmadaw — they are, and have been, the real enemy — and form an ethnic-led government in Naypyidaw, or on the other hand, achieve independence from Burma, all triggered by the continued failure of the Burmans to grant them autonomy and rein in the Tatmadaw.

The Tatmadaw uses delay to acquire new military hardware, especially helicopter gunships and drones, and strengthen their tactical positions and military camps in ceasefire areas. While this is happening, the EAOs are running out of money and territory, and their people killed, maimed, raped, displaced, and dispossessed every day waiting for autonomy and security sector reform. Further delay toward the realization of federalism and security sector reform plays into the hands of the Burmans and Tatmadaw, and equates with eventual defeat through a thousand cuts. While surrender is not an option, one does not need to surrender to be defeated.

Moe Gyo is a political consultant and strategist working for Strategic Border Consulting in Mae Sot, Thailand. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.