By, Banya Hongsar – On the 12th of February, Burma will celebrate Union Day in celebration of the unity of ethnic Burman and minority ethnic leaders in 1947, a year prior to Burma’s independence from Britain. The question of unity in Burma has been debated for years through different views based on historical perspectives among Burman and non-Burmese ethnic minorities.The Committee for the Emergency of a Federal Union (CEFU), a united front for the ethnic minorities of Burma, held its 2nd conference in January near the Thailand-Burma border. According to Nai Hongsa, secretary of CEFU and the general secretary of the New Mon State Party, “During the conference, the committee worked on forming political groups to represent the different ethnic minorities. The committee is working together with the democracy groups and we [the CEFU] will fight for democracy, politics, war, and diplomacy.” Ethnic leaders have been seeking basic human rights for their people for over six decades, but all their proposed agendas have been rejected by the ruling military government.
The current Union of Burma was accorded in 1947 without a complete picture of the political landscape of the people native to Burma before British rule. The best form of the Union can be built only if the leaders respect all cultural identities, languages, land rights and the right to self-government under the writing of a new constitution.
The Union of Myanmar changed its name in 1992. This supposed union does not exist as the country has been fighting civil wars since the first Union Day in 1948. According to Mon veteran political leader, Vice Chairman of Mon National Democratic Front, Nai Ngwe Thein, during a meeting between ethnic leaders and the National League for Democracy, at which Aung San Suu Kyi was present, “Burma is not a Union State, but it is formed as a ‘Unitary State’ based on the constitution of 1947.”
The “Union” that is claimed by modern Burmese leaders, both military and civilian groups, is only political propaganda. Burma’s ethnic people have never been granted local administrative power until today. The new government and parliament is dominated by 25% military representatives and appointed ministers by the president. Both the lower and upper house (People’s Assembly and National Assembly) are dominated by the military affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Five States were created in 1947 constitution and two new States formed in the 1974 constitution. These seven, ethnic States have never enjoyed the three pillars of governance; executive, judicial and legislative powers. The ethnic states have lived in fear of armed conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic resistance armed forces for the last sixty years. The plight of these native people has forced them to flee home and seek protection in Thailand, India and other neighbouring countries, and an estimated over three million non-Burmese native-people live on Thailand’s common border with Burma, both legally and illegally.
The Union of Myanmar’s government has ruled through military rule for over 60 years. The ruling military officials have used propaganda on every occasion to accuse ethnic leaders for the “disintegration of the union.” In fact, the Union of Myanmar has been ruled by only one native race, the Burmans, after British granted Independence in 1947. An accusation of ‘disintegration of the Union’ is groundless, but the propaganda is still ongoing in the government’s official press.
A recently released article from the Australian National University’s Burma Observer Nicholas Farrelly’s ‘Beyond Burma’s Stalemates’ said, “what we now need to acknowledge it that the military leadership has crafted a political and economic system that will likely endure well after elections are regularised. Their anticipation is that our lack of attention to Burma ensures that the military and its civilian proxies will be quietly encouraged to continue ruling the country.”
Ruling generals manipulate a “union spirit” by forcing local native-people to join mass rallies during the Union Day Celebration in major cities despite most having little desire to be part of the rally. The ethnic leaders have been seeking greater local autonomy rights instead of state sovereignty in the past six decades. The unity accord only represents a quarter of the modern political landscape. Even though some Karen, Mon, and Arakhan in lower Burma did not join in the first Panglong Conference, they have never been satisfied with the central government in political affairs.
A spirit of unity for the Union of Burma only can be achieved when racial respect is practised, cultural tolerance is acknowledged and political participation is legally granted to all ethnic minority people. Burma would then be able to claim a nation of peace with unity in diversity and the dignity of all.
In conclusion, let us reflect on the wisdom of our former leader, the first president of Burma, Sao Shwe Thaike, in his first address to the nation on the 4th of January 1948. The president addressed the nation and said “it is unity which has brought our struggle for independence to this early fruition and may unity continue to be the watchword for every member of the Sovereign Independent Republic to be henceforth known as Union of Burma.”
After sixty years of mistrust, and misjudgement on social, political, and national affairs, the current broken Union of Burma must be fixed and a genuine political process must commence if the spirit of the Union that was established by our former leaders can be implemented with dignity and hope for a new Burma.