Right of Secession: Cause worthy of concern?

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that was signed by 8 out of 15 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) invited by Napyitaw on 15 October 2015, contains two words that seem to have been resurrecting, at least to the military, the specter of the right of secession that had prompted it to occupy the Shan State since 1952, 4 years after Independence. This is in spite of the fact that its Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing is a signatory. 

The two words are “the Spirit of Panglong” and “the Right to Self Determination,” both of which are highlighted in the NCA’s Article 1 (a).

The extent of the concern is such even the State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi felt obligated to explain, on 27 May, that when she renamed the Union Peace Conference (UPC) which started in January “the 21st Century Panglong Conference” (21 CPC), she wasn’t advocating the Right of Secession, which was enshrined in the 1947 constitution, drafted and ratified 3 months before independence.

With regards to the other word, the Right of Self Determination, military representatives participating in the UPC#1 had vehemently spoken against it in favor of “right of autonomy.” Which begs the question whether the military   is considering amendment of the NCA’s Article 1.

Coming to this, there are arguments that the military may not like the right of self determination due to Burma’s past experience of its long association with the right of secession. But is the word autonomy, whose definitions are “self government (self governing country or region) on the one hand, and “Independence” on the other hand, okay for it? (To Burma’s eastern neighbor, Thailand, the word “autonomy” had long been tabooed, due to successive government’s equation of it with “Independence.”) Therefore, even using the word “autonomy” begs another question: Does the military want to grant independence to its long colonized non-Burman states?”

As for the right of self determination, the late Soviet leader Stalin’s pairing of it with the right of secession in his 1913 ‘Marxism and the National Question’, has no doubt been in our psyche for as long as we in Burma can remember. But digging deeper into the word, one invariably finds conflicting definitions since it became a household word with the 1941 Atlantic Charter, which promised the right to colonial countries and peoples that helped fight against the Axis powers.

Looking further, the Encyclopedia Princetoniensis, likely one of the sources of the EAOs’ interpretation of the word, says the following:

“Self determination has two aspects, internal and external. Internal self determination is the right of the people of a state to govern themselves without outside interference.

External determination is the right of peoples to determine their own political status and to be free of alien domination, including formation of their own independent state.”

Additionally, it states that “no right to secession has yet been recognized under international law.”

Summing up, the conclusion is that whether one chooses “autonomy” or “self determination” is not the point.

 What is important is as long as one respects the rights of others as one does to one’s own rights, there should be no fear of secession. Just like a spouse who treats his/her better half right doesn’t have to worry about divorce. But, on the contrary, the more one fears it and tries to prevent it by force, the more inevitable it is going to be.


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