Understanding the Union Day of Burma
By Nehginpao Kipgen
February 12, 2010 is the 63rd anniversary of Burma’s ‘Union Day’. It was this day in 1947 when 23 representatives from the Shan states, the Kachin hills and the Chin hills, and Aung San, head of the interim Burmese government, signed an agreement in Panglong (in Shan state) to form the Union of Burma.
The State Law and Order Restoration Council, the former name of military junta, changed the country name from ‘Union of Burma’ to ‘Union of Myanmar’ in 1989. However, the Burmese opposition and many Western nations still continue to use ‘Burma’ while many Eastern nations and the United Nations use ‘Myanmar’.
The Panglong agreement was a turning point in the modern history of Burma. General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, played a pivotal role in bringing together leaders of the Frontier Areas (ethnic nationalities) to the negotiating table. Thereafter, the 32-year-old Aung San was assassinated on 19 July 1947.
Not only was the Union Day a precursor to Burma’s independence from the yoke of British colonial rule in January 1948, but also the hallmark of ethno-political conflicts in the country. The significance of forming the Union Day was that Burma became a home to multi-ethnic nationalities.
When Aung San and his delegation went to London to negotiate Burma’s independence, no delegates from the Frontier Areas were present. During the meeting, Clement Attlee, the British prime minister, insisted that Burma proper should not coerce leaders of the Frontier Areas to join the Union of Burma against their will.
Aung San, however, argued that it was the British who kept the peoples of Burma apart. Aung San was quoted in The Times (London) on 14 January 1947 as saying: “We can confidently assert here that so far as our knowledge of our country goes, there should be no insuperable difficulties in the way of a unified Burma provided all races are given full freedom and the opportunity to meet together and to work without the interference of outside interests.”
In an attempt to allay the doubts and lingering fears of the British government regarding unequal treatments to the Frontier Areas in the future Union of Burma, Aung San assured the Frontier peoples in his unforgettable remark that: “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat.” Kyat is a Burmese currency.
After receiving assurance from Aung San, leaders of the Chin hills, Kachin hills and the Shan states agreed to cooperate with the interim Burmese government. The attending Frontier leaders believed that freedom will be more speedily achieved by immediate cooperation with the interim government.
The Shans, the Kachins and the Chins agreed to the formation of the Union of Burma in return for promises of full autonomy in internal administration and an equal share in the country’s wealth. The Karens still believed that the British would grant them an independent state. One most notable agreement of the Panglong conference was granting full autonomy to ethnic nationalities, which has not materialized until today. The agreement was basically for establishing a unified country, and was not aimed at putting an end to the traditional autonomy or self-rule of the Frontier Areas.
Failing to implement this agreement has increased mistrust and misunderstanding between the majority ethnic Burman-led central government and other ethnic nationalities. Autonomy has been a core demand for minorities since 1947, and continues to remain the fundamental issue. The ongoing ethno-political conflicts, including armed confrontations, are largely the consequences of the failure to implement the Panglong agreement. As long as the minority concerns are not addressed, the conflicts in Burma are likely to remain even if democracy is restored.
Autonomy is a political solution which can serve the interests of the erstwhile Frontier Areas. However, the military junta sees it as something that would disintegrate the Union of Burma. Political autonomy is not tantamount to secession. In other words, Burma’s ethnic minorities are neither secessionists nor separatists. They believe that autonomy or self-determination would give them an opportunity to preserve their culture, language, and tradition.
The minorities occupy roughly two-thirds of the country’s total land area, and constitutes over 30 percent of the population. They have long advocated for tripartite talks involving the military, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic nationalities, as endorsed by the United Nations since 1994.
Had not Aung San promised political equality and autonomy to the Frontier Areas, the Union of Burma might have never been born.
The Union of Burma/Myanmar can become a cohesive and vibrant society when the rights of all ethnic nationalities, regardless of the size of population, are treated equally. Each ethnic group must be given the right to practice and promote its own culture and literature, among others.
Any deliberate attempt by the military junta to annihilate any group of the multi-ethnic nationalities, militarily or culturally, is against the spirit of the Union Day. Despite the observance of its 63rd anniversary, the essence of the Union Day is still denied to Burma’s ethnic minorities.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published in five continents.