President’s Union Day Message Flags-up Federalism

Thein Sein, Constitution, federalism, Myanmar, ethnic conflict, Union Day, Kachin

Burma President Thein Sein delivers a speech in Naypyidaw in April 2011. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — With nationwide ceasefire talks scheduled for next month, Burma President Thein Sein gave what seems a strong hint that a government long-known for its centralizing leanings will take into account ethnic minority calls for more powers to be devolved to their regions through a federal union.

Thein Sein’s message to mark Burma’s Union Day said that “the government is striving towards strengthening national reconsolidation in cooperation with the entire national people,” and was published alongside a prior statement that “All national races are to establish the national unity based on ‘the Panglong Spirit’ and then march toward a peaceful, modern, and democratic nation through a federal system.”

However, the president’s words were overshadowed by reports of renewed fighting in Burma’s north, with clashes reported this week between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and between the Burma Army and the tiny Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which is backed by the KIA.

According to reports in online Kachin media, the Burma Army’s 261st Light Infantry Battalion and 421st Light Infantry Regiment clashed with the a Kachin people’s militia under the KIA’s 18th Battalion on Monday in the area around Laiza, a small town on the Burma-China border that is home to the KIA headquarters. No casualties were reported, but the area near Laiza had been calm until the skirmishes broke out.

The same media outlet, Kachin Land News, also said that the TNLA fought with the Burma Army’s Light Infantry Regiment 505 and 506 in northern Shan State on Monday in fresh clashes that reportedly left three Burmese soldiers dead.

The Irrawaddy was unable to reach KIA sources on Wednesday to confirm the reports.

More than 100,000 people in Kachin State have been driven from their homes by fighting between the Burma Army and KIA, which resumed in June 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire.

But with Burma’s reformist government seeking and ethnic minority leaders hopeful of investment into poor, ethnic minority borderlands, the government has signed ceasefires with 14 militias and talks about a wider national ceasefire agreement are due to take place in March.

After recent incendiary comments by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who said that the Burma Army did not fear ethnic militias and placed the blame for Burma’s divides on minority groups, President Thein Sein’s more conciliatory tone in today’s Union Day message might help build trust ahead of the proposed March talks.

“Thanks to united efforts of General Aung San and leaders of national races who acted in unison, the country regained unity after signing Panglong Agreement in 1947 and claimed independence,” read the communiqué.

Previous Union Day messages either downplayed or ignored the Panglong Agreement, which has long been held up as an ideal by ethnic groups seeking a more decentralized Burma. The Burmese military held power from 1962-2011; using the rationale that army rule was needed to stop the country’s minorities from seceding. Any form of decentralized governance was taboo during those years, while the country has played host to some of the world’s longest-running civil wars that pitted the Burmese Army against a myriad of ethnic minority militias.

And though containing some examples of one-eyed history—such as blaming British colonialism for setting Burma’s ethnic groups against each other, and making no mention of the impact of military rule on ethnic relations—the 2014 message marks a change in tone compared with previous years.

In 2013, though briefly mentioning Panglong, Thein Sein’s message reminded minorities that they were “obliged to pursue and protect the national policy which calls for non-disintegration of the union.” The year 2012 saw a blunt directive, asserting that “as all national people are families living under the same roof of the nation, the time has come for them to work together for national development with full understanding, instead of arguing with each other.”

However, amid renewed fighting in Burma’s north, minority representatives question whether the changed presidential gist will be followed by policies to match. Kachin activist Khon Ja told The Irrawaddy that “President Thein Sein said many things related to ethnic groups, but many of those were not implemented. Sometimes his words are like plastic flowers—they look real, even beautiful, at first. But when you look close you see they are not real.”

7 Responses to President’s Union Day Message Flags-up Federalism

  1. Write your sad times of military rule in sand.
    Write your good times about democracy and freedom in stone.

  2. Celebrating Union Day without the spirit of founding the Union makes no sense. Union of Burma was not founded for dictators but for the freedom of all citizens who live in the nation. Since 1962 to today, Union Day has been celebrated without its meaning.

  3. We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

  4. I would like to know why is “MYANMAR” still being refered to as “BURMA”. It has been almost 10 years since it has been know as “MYANMAR”. It seems to me that expats as well as locals cannot let go of the past. Every one wants a new start, well Thein Sein has got the ball rolling, why can’t they run with it? Most seem to dwell on the past & make a big song & dance about the sitituation. And in this case it seems that”IRRAWADDY” seems the biggest culprit. It had a lot to say when the military ruled with an “IRON FIST”. Now most thing have changed, but not “IRRAWADDY”. I pose the question “WHY”. Please explain.

  5. The real problem is “Share”. For the Burmar leaders, previous Burmese governments nor the current government are facing the main challenge is Share. Do they know how to share the cake? If they have known how to share the cake with the whole family members in the house, each member has their own bite of cakes, everyone would be happy. But the problem was the Barmar leaders want to take all the cake. Yes, they eat all the cake. As the result, the non-burmar nationalities have to fight for their share. That is normal for the human nature. For the future of Burma, new country, new systems or whatever may that be if the Barmar leaderships fail to “SHARE”, the country will still face the doom. Now, are the Barmar leaders (Thein Sein, the military and NLD led by Aung San Su Kyi) ready to share? I am deeply dare to challenge them of their vision for the peaceful country…

  6. I do not believe Thein Sein knows what he is talking about. His predecessors did the same thing. They just spoke out the word Union without realizing the meaning. They did not even differentiate the word Union from Unitary. USDP members are blind people to lead the nation into democracy. They are leading the nation into the ditch today.

  7. Federalism. About a month ago I queried a Myanmar Legal Eagle , a respected distinguished Professor of Law at a nearby SE Asian University , his thoughts and opinion on the “reveiw of the 2008 constituition”. He told me point blank, “its not a legal- constituitional question at stake,in Myanmar but its ” a political question”. FULL STOP. There is always a risk and uncertainty problem , as we Burmese “fumble” trudging along tpwards ” freedom and democracy”. We have too much attitudinal (mental) baggages of the past, to carry. Unless we drop it, and “creatively” act on it— the re-structuring of power relations that the Burmese population is in, we as a nation and people will be lurching swaying to and fro on the coming waves of unstoppable “crisis”. The mother and oops father of all ” crisis” is “political”.

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