President’s Union Day Message Flags-up Federalism

By Simon Roughneen 12 February 2014

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.”