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Union Day Highlights the Fundamental Need to Address the Political Aspirations of the Ethnic Nationalities

By Burma Partnership  •  February 13, 2012

On 12 February 2012, Burma celebrated the 65th Union Day, a holiday that commemorates the signing of the Panglong agreement by Aung San, the leader of Burma’s independence movement, and representatives of the Chin, Shan and Kachin people. The agreement, which was never implemented, provided for the creation of a Federal Union, called for power sharing between the majority Burman and non-Burman ethnic nationalities, and granted the non-Burman ethnic nationalities autonomy in the administration of their territories.

On this historic occasion it is particularly important to ensure that political reforms in Burma live up to the aspirations of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities, including their desire to participate equally in public life. The Nationalities Brotherhood Forum, a five-party ethnic alliance which includes Chin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan representatives, noted in their Union Day statement that “[w]e are saddened by the continuing lack of equality and national democratic rights for the ethnic nationalities, despite the fact that Independence was collectively achieved for the Union of Burma through the spirit of Panglong.”

As recognized by Naruemon Tabchumpol, Chulalongkorn University political scientist and board member of the Bangkok-based Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma, “Burma’s democratisation has not touched the ethnic minority yet.” Instead, conflict with ethnic armed groups continues with the Burma Army launching attacks against the Kachin Independence Organization and the Shan State Army- South over the course of the past week.

President Thein Sein, in a speech marking Union Day, pledged to seek “lasting peace” with armed groups and stated that the “[p]articipation of the entire national people is sorely needed to bring internal armed conflicts to an end and build lasting peace, and in nation-building endeavours.” This is a laudable goal but it must be recognized that the creation of “lasting peace” requires more than simply a ceasefire agreement. Past ceasefires have never been able to establish genuine peace, resulting only in a temporary absence of war, as they have not addressed the political aspirations of the ethnic people. A political solution to the question of the future of the ethnic nationalities must be reached in order to create “lasting peace.”

Unfortunately current ceasefire negotiations are repeating the mistakes of the past with government representatives failing to address the root causes of the conflict. As U Zin Linn noted in an op-ed calling for the implementation of the Panglong agreement “[w]ithout addressing and honoring the ethnic people’s demand for self-determination, the latest parliament-based government seems unable to stop political and civil strife throughout ethnic areas … National reconciliation and ethnic self-determination are two sides of the same coin, and they must be addressed in the new parliament and in respective regional and state parliaments. If the current government fails to deal with the Panglong initiative or equal rights of ethnic minorities, its so-called political reforms will not be a meaningful process.”

A number of ethnic armed groups are seeking to recapture the spirit of the Panglong agreement on its 65th anniversary and are insisting that ceasefire negotiations be accompanied by political dialogue. In an admirable move the New Mon State Party (NMSP) has made an end to conflict in Kachin State a condition of reaching a ceasefire agreement with the Burma Army with NMSP chairman Nai Htaw Mon stating that “[w]e have told the government many times that it must stop fighting in Kachin State, but it has failed to do so. This is a crucial matter that needs to be resolved before we sign a ceasefire.” The insistence by the NMSP on a nationwide ceasefire and comprehensive political dialogue epitomizes the desire of the ethnic groups to live together in a union that respects the differences of its ethnic nationalities and allows all groups to fully participate in public life.

It is our sincere hope that Thein Sein’s government will recognize this desire on the part of the people and move forward with genuine political dialogue such that next year, on the 66th Union Day, we can say that there is true peace and unity in Burma.

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