Burma Conflicts and Second Panglong Conference

Published on January 4, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

January 4, 2011 – The Sydney Morning Herald

On 4 January 2011, Burma will celebrate its 63rd independence day. It was on this day in 1948, the Union of Burma was granted independence by the British. Over six decades have passed since independence, but the crux of the conflicts still remains unresolved.

The 2011 independence day celebration will differ from the previous years for two important reasons. First, pro-military legislators prepare to dominate a parliamentary government. Second, Aung San Suu Kyi will celebrate the occasion with her National League for Democracy (NLD) party members, free from house arrest.

The continued conflicts are primarily due to the denial of autonomy/ federalism to the non-Burman ethnic nationalities by the successive Burman-led central governments. Autonomy has been the core demand of the non-Burman ethnic groups.

The 1947 Panglong agreement was a turning point in the history of Burma’s modern politics. It established the conditions for independence and shaped the foundation for the Union of Burma.

The ethnic Burmans were aware that a unified Burma would not be possible without the cooperation of the Frontier Areas (non-Burmans). There was a lingering fear, suspicion and doubts in the minds of the Frontier peoples about possible domination by ethnic Burmans in the post-independence era.

To clarify the lingering concerns, General Aung San made a historically significant statement, which reads: “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat.” This was an assurance that every ethnic group within the Union of Burma will receive equal treatment.

Such assuring remarks from a prominent Burman leader persuaded representatives from the Chin hills, the Kachin hills, and the Shan states to cooperate with the interim Burmese government. Subsequently, twenty two representatives from the Frontier Areas (3 from Chin hills, 6 from Kachin hills, 13 from Shan states) and the Burma Proper represented by Aung San signed the Panglong agreement on 12 February 1947.

However, with the assassination of Aung San on 19 July 1947, the Burman nationalists and ultranationalists interpreted the ethnic minorities’ demand for autonomy as an attempt to disintegrate the Union of Burma.

Because of its failure to implement the Panglong agreement, a decade of Prime Minister U Nu government was threatened by insurgency problems. The hope for political autonomy/ federalism was shattered when military leader General Ne Win staged a coup d’état on 2 March 1962.
Historical facts have demonstrated that the present day conflicts in Burma are primarily rooted in the non-implementation of Panglong agreement, especially on the question of autonomy for ethnic minorities.

The question now is whether the present leadership of ethnic Burman groups is ready for another Panglong-type conference to address the concerns of ethnic minorities. Will the new pro-military civilian government or other moderate leaders led by Aung San Suu Kyi be willing to revisit the Panglong agreement?

In this regard, Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly voiced her support for holding a second Panglong conference. A few days after her release from house arrest in November 2010, Suu Kyi said, “A second Panglong conference addressing the concerns of the 21st century is needed for national reconciliation.”

Because of her being the daughter of Aung San, who signed the Panglong agreement on behalf of the interim Burmese government, ethnic minorities trust and support Suu Kyi more than any other Burman leaders in the country.

Suu Kyi’s comment was later cautiously or more realistically restated by the NLD leadership during their meeting with Joseph Yun, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, on 10 December 2010 in Rangoon.
According to Ohn Kyaing, spokesman of NLD, “The second Panglong conference is intended to give people a strong sense of unity. It does not intend to oppose any person or any organisation. Practically, it will be fruitful only if the military participates in it. So, we want the military to participate in it. It’s an affair we need to do in unison.”
The idea of second Panglong conference apparently does not interest the military leaders. In the Burmese-language Myanmar Ahlin newspaper on 8 December 2010, the military downplayed the revival of Panglong spirit.

The article reported that: “If they [the opposition] choose to follow this idealistic way while ignoring the best way [parliament], they should be aware that that it will bring more harm than good to the country.”

The military’s lukewarm approach to second Panglong conference is not surprising. This indicates that the mentality of present military leadership does not much differ from General Ne Win’s era when the military construed federalism as an attempt to disintegrate the Union of Burma.

Forty eight years of military rule is a long time, but no military dictatorship has survived forever in world history. It is a matter of time how and when the Burmese military junta will become a bygone history.

Senior General Than Shwe and his cohorts are meticulously orchestrating to transfer power to a pro-military civilian government, similar to the post-Suharto regime in Indonesia in the late 1990s.

What matters most is finding amicable solutions to over a six-decade-old conflicts in Burma. Holding a second Panglong conference will be a promising fresh start for all ethnic nationalities, both for Burmans and non-Burmans alike.

Burma prepares to celebrate its 63rd birthday although ethnic minorities have not fully enjoyed the spirit of independence day yet.

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) whose works have been widely published in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. He currently pursues a Ph.D. in political science at Northern Illinois University. He can be reached at nkipgen@niu.edu.

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  1. The Panglong agreement should have been part of the 1947 constitution. The ‘Central’ Govt. made up of Rep.s from each of the autonomous State/Divisional Govt.s. Elections. 10 household Rep.s elect 100 household Reps elect 1000 household Reps elect 100,000 household Reps ETC. Term of service for each Rep to be 3 or 4 yrs. Otherwise they tend to stick to their seats like they are glued with superglue. The State Govt.s in U Nu’s time were not even allowed to issue registration for motor vehicles within the State. If U Nu had followed the Panglong agreement, the Insein battle would not have happened. This setup would also discourage dictatorships amongst the ethnic groups.

  2. Thank you very much for that great article