What does ‘Union Day’ mean to ethnic minorities?

Published on February 13, 2007

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Irrawaddy – February 14, 2007


Union Day history starts at Panglong in southern Shan State on February 12, 1947, when 23 representatives from the Burman government, Chin Hills, Kachin Hills and Shan States signed an agreement in the presence of representatives from the executive council of the governor of Burma, to form an interim government.*


The emergence of Union Day initially, though, did not include all the ethnic nationalities of present day Burma, yet it has served as a threshold for a unified Burma. The agreement was aimed at establishing a federal Burma on the basis of socio-political equality and self-determination for all ethnic nationalities.
Had not Aung San promised political equality and self-determination to ethnic minority groups, the Union of Burma might have never been born.
During the drafting of the Union of Burma’s constitution, hopes were abruptly shattered with the assassination of Aung San, along with six of executive councilors on July 19, 1947. Aung San was the architect of the Panglong Agreement, and his departure dashed the dream of having a federal government: the constitution was hastily created on the model of a quasi-federal organization, categorically downplaying the visions of the Panglong signatories. This mischievous turn of events has become a source of lingering distrust between the Burman government and ethnic minorities of today.

With the adoption of the amended constitution on September 24, 1947, ethnic minority groups realized that the quasi-federal constitution did not guarantee their equality of rights and self-determination, as agreed upon at Panglong. Subsequently, the non-Burman ethnic nationalities, after a series of consultations and meetings amongst themselves and with Burman government leaders, demanded changes to the 1947 constitution to include the principles of political equality and self-determination. Article X of the 1947 constitution states: “….every State shall have the right to secede from the Union….”
Partly due to the discontent of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities during 1951 to 1961, the civilian government was confronted with many constitutional challenges. At the same time, there was a leadership crisis within the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League—the party splitting into two factions—AFPFL-clean and AFPFL-stable in May 1958.
Consequently, U Nu, the prime minister, asked the army chief, Ne Win, to form a caretaker government and conduct general elections. During the 1960 election, U Nu’s AFPFL-clean faction returned to power. Sticking to their demands, leaders of ethnic minorities demanded discussions with Prime Minister U Nu about amendments to the constitution. This demand was reasserted at a conference when the Ethnic States Unity and Solidarity Organization convened in 1961.
Construing the political maneuver as a threat to the integration of the country based on a federal model, Ne Win seized power by military coup on March 2, 1962, which led to the arrest of U Nu and other leaders, including Sao Shwe Thaike, the first president of independent Burma. The non-Burman ethnic nationalities largely saw the military regime as the Burman government. Having little hope for any peaceful agreement with a military-dominated government, many ethnic minority groups resorted to armed struggle.
Under Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council government, the 1947 constitution was replaced by the 1974 constitution which stressed a unitary form of government. On September 18, 1988, the military-led government transformed itself into the State Law and Order Restoration Council and then to the State Peace and Development Council on November 15, 1997. The name is expected to change again in the ongoing process of the military regime’s seven steps toward a “disciplined democracy.”
In his remarks on the 60th anniversary of Union Day, SPDC chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, said: “Certain powerful countries desirous of gaining dominance over the Union of Myanmar are stirring up racial conflicts to break up national unity and cause the recurrence of armed conflicts.” Our view, however, is that successive Burman military governments have dominated the ethnically diverse country with very little tolerance and absolute, dictatorial control.
Despite the observation of Union Day for the past 60 years, the true spirit of the day has never been honored by the Burman government: guaranteeing the ethno-political equality and self-determination of ethnic nationalities. This does not, however, give a clean chit to secessionism, but rather stresses the intrinsic importance of establishing a unified Burma under a federal system. History tells us that prior to the British conquest and the subsequent Panglong Agreement, all nationalities of present day Burma had already established themselves, in one organizational form or another.
As long as the present and future leaders of Burma fail to recognize the principles of the Panglong Agreement, the true spirit of Union Day will never be realized. Therefore, every nationality in the Union of Burma has the right to claim or proclaim its pre-independence status. This fact needs to remain as a focal point of all political stakeholders, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliations. The emergence of a unified and peaceful country rests on the shoulders of all the peoples of Burma. To achieve political equality and self-determination, all ethnic groups must work together.
Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of  US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).
*[Burman representative: Aung San; Chin representatives: U Hlur Hmung, U Thawng Za Khup, U Kio Mang; Kachin representatives: Sinwa Nawng, Zau Rip, Dinra Tang, Zau La, Zau Lawn, Labang Grong; Shan representatives: Tawnpeng, Yawnghwei, North Hsenwi, Laika, Mong Pawn, Hsamonghkam and representatives of Pawnglawng, Tin E, Kya Bu, Sao Yapa Hpa, Htun Myint, Hkun Saw, Hkun Htee.]