Myanmar celebrates its 71st Union Day on Feb. 12. The holiday commemorates the day in 1947 on which ethnic leaders signed the Panglong Agreement with General Aung San, calling for the establishment of a federal Union of states upon independence from Britain.
Colonel Naw Bu, a spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Army, told The Irrawaddy that as a young student he was happy when Union Day came around each year. As he learned more about politics, however, he said the annual commemoration became less of a source of happiness for him.
“It is not a real Union. I feel the country’s indigenous ethnic people have been treated like second-class citizens,” he said.
The Kachin ethnic armed group has yet to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), and is engaged in ongoing clashes with the Myanmar Army, or Tatmadaw, in the north of the country.
“We have mixed feelings on Union Day, as we do not yet have freedom, we do not have equal rights, and we have yet to achieve political rights,” he said.
More than 100,000 Kachin people have become internally displaced persons (IDPs) since the 2011 collapse of a ceasefire between the KIA and the Tatmadaw that had lasted for 17 years.
The 1947 Panglong Agreement was signed between Gen Aung San and leaders of ethnic groups including the Kachin, Shan, and Chin. They had high expectations that signing the agreement would lead to equal rights for their people. However, this dream failed to become a reality as the military assumed control of the country and repressed ethnic peoples instead of offering equal rights.
Arakan National Party lawmaker U Pe Than said, “Our ethnic people trusted Gen Aung San greatly. They trusted that he would be able to secure equal rights for them after independence.”
However, he said, “Today, we have a Union in name only. We need a genuine Union. But the Burmese alone have ruled this Union for many generations and they remain the most influential group within it.”
“It is important to have a Union that is like a tree, with equal rights for all. We should think like brothers, and we should not discriminate against certain groups. We should live as one community, with equal opportunity for all,” he said.
Some people fight for political rights within the law by forming political parties, he said, while others take up arms to fight for their ethnic and political rights.
“We are fighting a civil war in this country; the denial of rights to ethnic people has slowed development,” U Pe Than said.
Myanmar began a process of political reform in 2010 after more than 50 years of military rule. The reforms signaled the arrival of democracy in the country. Of the 21 recognized ethnic armed groups, eight signed the NCA with the government of U Thein Sein.
When the National League for Democracy won the election in 2015, its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, became the de facto head of government. She organized a new Panglong Conference to conduct political dialogue with ethnic groups.
A political agreement was reached at the Panglong Conference to propose an amendment to the 2008 Constitution, which was written by the military. In this way, the ethnic armed and political organizations sought to try and work with the NLD-led democratic government. However, their chances of success remained unclear as the military retains power in the country.
Colonel Sai Oo, a spokesperson for the Restoration Council of Shan State, said: “We used armed struggle and fought to have a real Union for many years, but we did not get it. We have walked on the road of democracy, and worked together with the NLD government to build a real Union.”
However, he said, “We are not clear about what type of democracy we have in the country now. Or even whether we have a genuine Union.”
Based in southern Shan State, the RCSS is one of the ethnic armed groups that has signed the NCA with the government.
Regarding ethnic rights, Col Sai Oo said minority ethnic people still do not have the rights to own their natural resources, as the Myanmar government sill controls everything.
“Until our country has equal rights, we can not recognize this as a real Union. They took it all [the country’s natural resources] under their control as they were the majority group. They really should share it,” he said.