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Myanmar's Roadmap to Democracy

By: Norbert Klein Posted: February-27-2012 in
Norbert Klein

Developments in Myanmar start to get more and more attention in the international press, and also in what is being reflected into local publications in Cambodia. The Cambodia Daily reported – quoting Reuters: In Burma's Kachin, Suu Kyi Stirs Hopes for Peace for Rebels.

If I had not been in Yangon on 12 February 2012, I would probably not have know that this day was dedicated to an important historical memory: it was the 65th Anniversary Union Day.

General Aung San, the father of the present democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, played an important role in the process of achieving independence for the Union of Burma from British colonial rule – though he was assassinated 1947, half a year before this goal was realized.

In August 1943 Japanese military forces, that had taken control in many countries in south-east Asia, declared Burma to be independent from British rule. Aung San was appointed minister in charge of the military. But he did not see that the Japanese forces provided real independence – so he contacted the British authorities in India and organized an anti-Japanese uprising in March 1945 and helped, with his forces, that the Japanese military was defeated.

The important next steps toward independence were a negotiation with the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee leading to an agreement, signed on 27 January 1947, that Burma would gain independence during the next 12 months. Soon after this, Aung San was also able to achieve an agreement, signed on 12 February 1947 in Panglong, where leaders of the major non-Burmese ethnic groups – there are more than 100 languages spoken in the area brought together under British colonial rule - “Myanmar is a federal republic made of seven purely Burmese divisions (Sagaing, Mandalay, Magwe, Pegu, Irrawaddy, Rangoon, Tenasserim) and seven states with non-Burmese population (Kachin, Chan, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Arakan, Chin).” [Source with some information about the major ethnic groups, including historical politicl struggles]

The text of the 1947 Union Agreement speaks about it's anti-colonial goal:

A conference having been held at Panglong, attended by certain Members of the Executive Council of the Governor of Burma, all Saohpas [traditional ethnic leaders] and representatives of the Shan States, the Kachin Hills and the Chin Hills, the members of the conference, believing that freedom will be more speedily achieved by the Shans, the Kachins and the Chins by their immediate co-operation with the Interim Burmese Government, have accordingly, and without dissentients, agreed as follows:

...(V) Though the Governor's Executive Council will be augmented as agreed above, it will not operate in respect of the Frontier Areas in any manner which would deprive any portion of these Areas of the autonomy which it now enjoys in internal administration. Full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas is accepted in principle...

...(VII) Citizens of the Frontier Areas shall enjoy rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries...

So the Union of Burma achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1948 – based on this document assuring “rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries.” But in reality, for decades, in many of the ethnic non-Burmese regions, there has been military resistance against the central government. For example, the Karen National Liberation Army, the military branch of the Karen National Union, has been fighting since 1949 for the self-determination of the Karen people.

The new government, which came into place after the 2010 elections – criticized by many as not having been free and fair – announced that a new chapter of history is to start. Peace negotiations have been going on between the government and the major ethnicity based resisting armies, and some agreements have already been reached.

While I was in Myanmar, I saw a report about one of these peace negotiations – on television for hours! Though I could not follow the language, I could read the following acronyms on the wall of the room where the negotiations took place:

KNU/KNLA

The peace negotiations between the Karen National Union and the Karen National Liberation Army, until recently considered to be enemies of the state, could be observed by the TV viewing public. Cameras were obviously not only allowed for a brief photo session – they were welcome to let the public observe the whole process in detail, including controversial exchanges, showing maps while arguing back and forth. - I have taken some picture from the TV screen (therefore of minor quality) which I share here as an example, how the government and their armed adversaries, show to everybody the difficulties of their relations, but also the seriousness of their effort to find a new start together.

[You can mouse-click on each picture to enlarge it]

Government delegation arrives by helicopter
"Government delegation arrives by helicopter"

The delegations meet
"The delegations meet"

The all male civilian government delegation
"The all male civilian government delegation - KNU/KNLA on the wall"

The KNU/KNLA delegation
"The KNU/KNLA delegation"

In the KNU delegation were two women
"In the KNU delegation were two women"

No wonder that the English language daily newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, had every day slogans appealing for unity on their front page. Unity among different peoples was central when they had agreed on a common goal: to achieve independence. But instead there has been conflicts, suffering, military confrontation, and the loss of many lives. Now a new start is attempted:

Non-disintegration of the Union
Non-disintegration of National Solidarity
Perpetuation of Sovereignty

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