Linking Panglong Agreement review and the 5th anniversary re-eruption of Kachin conflict

As the Kachin Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and over a hundred Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), local and international, called for peace and an end to the military offensives in Shan and Kachin States, on the  5th anniversary of re-erupted armed conflict between the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/KIA) and Burma Army (a.k.a. Tatmadaw or the military), the  two Shan resistance armies - the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) - joined by KIO/KIA, met in Chiang Mai from 7 to 8 June to review, reflect and build awareness on the Panglong Agreement that was signed in 1947, between the Federated Shan States, Kachin and Chin Hills, together with the Ministerial Burma or Burma Proper.

These two seemingly unrelated issues are in fact intertwined and even inseparable, which need to be resolved simultaneously, to end the decades-old ethnic conflict that has plagued the country for so long.

Let us look at the linkage, which has been deliberately neglected and manipulated by successive military-dominated regimes, so that better understanding and pragmatic approach to resolve the problem could emerge.

Breaching and rejection of Panglong Agreement

Initially, the Burma Army's breaching of Panglong Agreement contract is the main source of ethnic conflict occurring in the country today.

The 1947 Union of Burma Constitution although federal in form is unitary in practice. And to right this wrong the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities tabled an amendment proposal titled "Federal Amendment Proposal" within the union parliament in 1962, which was rudely interrupted by the General Ne Win's military coup on 2nd March the same year, citing to rescue the union from disintegration. But this was the only possible legal chance and approach to resolve the then simmering ethnic conflict peacefully, which was threatening to blow out of proportion. For the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities saw the imbalanced political system as being an unjust usurpation of political power by the Bamar political class, effectively taking the place of British colonial master, treating them as its colonial possession.

To make the long story short, the Burmese military had ruled the country through military dictatorship from 1962 until 2011, when a quasi-civilian rule was established, under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

As all know, the Aung San Suu Kyi headed National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power a few months ago, but despite a landslide victory in November 2015 nationwide election, it still has to share political power with the military. According to the constitution the military is entitled to 25% of parliamentary seats without having to enter the elections, in addition to the privilege to control the three most important ministries of home, defence and  border affairs.

In short the breaching of Panglong Agreement, which is in fact the denial of ethnic nationalities' rights of self-determination, equality, democracy and human rights that were supposed to be anchored in a genuine federalism, started in 1962 because of the military coup and is still the case until today.

And as the consequence of this political rights denial is the ongoing armed resistance movements from the part of the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities, the Burma Army goes about with its self-appointed, protector role of upholding the national unity, security and protecting the country's sovereignty, unleashing  militarization and occupation of the ethnic homelands.

And as all could see, the result is the prolonged civil war producing hundreds of thousands of IDP and refugee population within the country and neighbouring countries, which in turn hindered the democratization and development process, at the expense of all the people, Bamar and non-Bamar included.

The cost of conflict

As to how this ongoing civil war has impacted upon the country and people, the Myanmar Times of 26 March 2012 had made some astonishing assessment.

Aung Tun, a researcher at Myanmar Egress, a Yangon-based training centre and policy think-tank,
who penned the piece titled “The economic cost of conflict”, asked 5 critical questions. First is the pure financial cost of these civil wars. Second, who paid for it? Third, what if the regime had used that money for the development of the region where the fighting has taken place instead of the wars? Fourth, who benefited from the wars? And last and most importantly, what should the regime do next?

In answering the first question, he said there is no definite answer. But stressed: “Certainly, the cost to the government has been massive; you only need to look at defence spending – K1.193 trillion in 2011-12 – to get some idea of the cost of perpetual conflict.”

To the second question it is easier to answer he said: “(W)e all have to pay for it, and this is a major reason why we’re now all in a large amount of debt. Recently, the finance minister announced in parliament that we owe more than US$11 billion. No surprises there.”

To the third question, he said: “(It) is the really tragic aspect of this, particularly in an age when it is quite difficult to get money from donors. Everybody knows that we are the lowest recipient of aid per capita among undeveloped countries. Yet, we have still spent our own money on these conflicts. If we used this money on development projects instead, we probably wouldn’t need to receive support from other countries today.”

To the fourth question: “(N)obody really benefited from the wars. Many people, both military and civilian, have died, children missed out on their education, refugees camps had to be set up along the border areas, political stability has declined and development in other areas of the country has been hindered. If we add in the additional costs of these ethnic conflicts, the external debt figure doesn’t sound so large.”

To the fifth and most crucial question, he recommended: “(P)erhaps the most difficult one. An excellent start would be to avoid the wars that have dogged us for decades. Both politically and economically, the country can’t bear any armed conflict at this crucial time.

Added to this gloomy prospect of continuously waging war on ethnic nationalities are staggering statistic of IDP and refugee population that any nation facing it would definitely be alarmed.

  • Over 1 million people in need of humanitarian assistance (Source: UN OCHA HRP 2016) 
  • Over 140,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and 800,000 in a dire humanitarian situation in Rakhine (Arakan) State due to a human rights crisis
  • Over 96,000 IDPs in Kachin and northern Shan States, approx. 50% of which are in camps located in non-Government controlled areas.(Source: UNHCR, 2016)
  • An estimated 3 million people from Myanmar/Burma live in Thailand as economic migrants, while 110,000 are living in nine refugee camps along the border between the two countries. {Source: Factsheet - European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), February 2016}

The most important human causalities is hard to compiled, as warring parties are not ready to publicize and thus remains a misery. But let us just take a few stories from secondary sources to see how high the human tolls could possibly be.

It is said that thousands from both sides, the Tatmadaw and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), had lost their lives during this decades-long armed ethnic conflict, with no decisive victory for either side and a potential that could go on for a much longer time, if no political solution is found and this senseless war is allowed to be continued.

On 8 July 2015, The Irrawaddy reported that it paid a recent visit to the cemetery, in Lashio town of northern Shan State, which hosts the graves of some 200 soldiers who died between February and April last year, at the height of the conflict in the Kokang Special Region along the border with China, which displaced tens of thousands of civilians.

Nang Wah Nu who also visited the cemetery alongside the then parliamentary Speaker U Shwe Mann, told The Irrawaddy: “I heard that the tombs were just for soldiers who died while coming from Kokang to get treatment in Lashio. Some others died in the hospital. They could not pick up those who were killed on the frontline.”

Nicholas Farrelly's hypothetical report in New Mandala - 11 April 2012, titled “3,000 dead Burmese soldiers?” wrote: “Now there is a report that according to KIA [Kachin Independence Army] sources the number of government troops lost over the past 10 months [since 9 June 2011, when the Kachin war recommenced] could be as high as 3,000”.

According to FindTheData website, 210,000 death toll estimation was counted for 65 years period, from 1948 until 2013.

Thus, even without precise death toll count, one could clearly see that the human cost of conflict is tremendously high.

Panglong awareness-building spearheaded by Kachin and Shan armies

The meeting of two Shan armies and KIO/KIA to review the Panglong Agreement and subsequent producing of the Panglong Handbook was an ambitious undertaking to build awareness of the historical document, without which there would not have been the Union of Burma/Myanmar.

The drafted Panglong Handbook contains the following headings:

  • Foreword
  • How it came into being
  • The Panglong Spirit
  • The Panglong Promises
  • The Panglong Agreement
  • Statements by Aung San, and others
  • Afterword

The draft was provisionally approved, pending input and endorsement by Chin National Front (CNF).

The next step was said to be to present it to the planned Pre-21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC). The procedure is not unusual historically speaking. On 6-7 February 1947, the Chin, Kachin and Shan leaders met and reached agreement on what to present to Aung San, the head of the Executive Council of Burma Government, who arrived at Panglong on the next day.

General N’Banla, head of the KIO/KIA remarked the following at the end of the meeting.

  • This meeting held to revisit Panglong has been really satisfactory
  • There would never have been a Union of Burma/Myanmar without Panglong
  • The word Panglong therefore carries a truly profound meaning
  • Chin, Kachin and Shan, being the original signatories of the Agreement, must take primary responsibility
  • Panglong has been the central pillar to the Union. But successive governments have only chosen to dishonour it. If you are looking for the perpetrators of the Three Sacred Causes (Non-disintegration of the Union, Non-disintegration of National Solidarity and Perpetuation of National Sovereignty), there is no need to look far. These people should be tried in court.

Different interpretation of Panglong

Bamar's Panglong Agreement interpretation is upholding unitary political system with minimal devolution of power. Apart from this, the military has been eagerly rewriting the essence of Panglong Agreement as if it is a reunion of the Burmese empire between the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities and lowland Burma. But the treaty from the ethnic nationalities' point of view is to form a voluntary new political entity, that later became the Union of Burma in 1948.

The ongoing armed conflict of the EAOs with the successive Bamar military governments, including the present quasi-civilian NLD regime, that continues to these days is only because of their breaching of contractual obligations rooted in Panglong Agreement.

Besides the heightening of war going on in Shan and Kachin States, due to the Burma Army military offensives, under the pretext of protecting the interest of the people and protecting the national sovereignty, the recent armed conflict outbreak in Arakan State is also the ramification of such broken promises.

In other words, as the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities' political grievances could not be addressed and corrected within a proper, appropriate political channel, coupled with the coercive bullying to follow the military-dominated government's prescription and political agendas, armed resistance   was the only way out left to express their political conviction. To put it differently, armed struggle   has been resorted to express or achieve their political aspirations.

The way ahead

There is hardly any other way to resolve the conflict but to honour the Panglong Agreement, Pledges and Spirit.

In practical terms, the military must first stop its offensives through acceptance of the fact that its concept of sole sovereignty ownership of the country, is in fact, a shared-sovereignty, according to the Panglong Agreement, stemming from the co-independence achieved from the British in 1948, together with the other ethnic nationalities.

And if this is conceptually cleared, withdrawing of warring troops to a safe distance could be agreed upon, followed by earnest political dialogue.

To conclude, the offensive war in Kachin, Shan and Arakan States could easily be stopped, if the Panglong Agreement and Promises are adhered to, while breaching and rejecting it with a twisted logic will prolong the ethic conflict.

It is now up to the military, and as an extension the NLD regime, either to stop the war and follow up with the national reconciliation process or continue the denial of the ethnic nationalities' equal status, rights of self-determination, human rights and democracy enshrined in Panglong Agreement.

Whether the awareness-building of Panglong review spearheaded by the Shan and Kachin resistance armies would be enough to educate the right side of history to the Bamar political decision-makers and military leaders or not is hard to speculate. Equally, the pleas and demand of the Kachin and Shan people, including local and international CSOs, to stop the war will be heard is also unpredictable. But one thing is sure, honouring the Panglong Agreement and Promises will definitely pave way for a more peaceful atmosphere, which eventually will usher the country into a more harmonious co-habitation together, with possible long-lasting solution.


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