Shan State and Union of Burma

Message on the 59th Anniversary of Shan National Day


Sai Wansai

   It is interesting to note that the linkage and emergence of the modern Shan State, its national day and the formation of the Union of Burma are so intertwined; it is almost impossible to discuss the making of this historical formation separately.

   The date 7th February 1947 is a defining moment in the record of the Shan history as a modern nation. On that day, Shan princes and the people's representatives of the Shan States demonstrated their newfound unity to declare it a "national day" which were followed by the resolutions of "Shan National Anthem", "Shan National Flag" and the formation of "Shan State Council" on the 11th and 15th of February, 1947 respectively. These had been done without reference to the British colonial overlords, who claimed protector-ship over the Federated Shan States since 1886-87 (one year after the fall of the Burman kingdom and the Alaungpaya or Gonbaung dynasty).

   The formation of the Shan State Council by Shan leaders autonomously of the British represents a declaration by the Shan that they are a sovereign, free nation. This bold action constitutes a Shan declaration of independence from foreign rule, and the date, 7th February 1947, marks the entry of the Shan people onto the world's historical stage as a modern nation.

   The people of Shan States and leaders decided in this very year later at Panglong, on the 12th of February, to join with U Aung San and the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League) and leaders of other nationalities, to live together under one flag as co-independent and equal nations. This marks the birth of a nation-state now known as "Union of Burma".

   It is not an exaggeration to state that without Panglong Agreement or Accord, signifying the intent and willingness of the free peoples and nations of what could be termed British Indochina, there would have not been born the Union of Burma in 1948.

Failed Cohabitation

   As all know, the experiment to live together in harmony within the Union of Burma has been a disaster. In 1962, the Burmese military sized state power in a coup and declared the Union Constitution abolished. In so doing, the Burmese terminated the only existing legal bond between them and the other ethnic nationalities. The declaration of the suspension of the Constitution was in effect a self-denunciation that Burma had overnight become an aggressor-nation instead of partner. Since then, Shan State has been treated as a de facto colony and occupied territory by the Burmese army. Its forced assimilation and Burmanization policies to subdue our national identity have devastated the Shan homeland and make the people homeless and refugees. Looking at the contemporary situation, one could only term the Shan nation as a downtrodden and battered one, reeling under the occupation of the oppressive Burmese military regime. Gross human rights violations, genocide and cultural genocide, population transfer designed to make the Shan a minority in their homestead, and robbing them of their birthright sovereignty and self-determination are glaring injustice, which push the Shan into the category of sub-human or slaves, especially in the eyes of their occupiers. The same situation also applies to the Karenni, Karen, Mon, Arakan, Chin and Kachin States.

   But even under such circumstances and after more than four decades of brutal suppression and occupation, the Shan sense of "national identity" and the aspiration to be the master of their own faith have not diminish but have grown stronger. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy's (SNLD) victory in 1990 nation-wide election in the whole Shan State; the continued political activities of the Shan State Army North within the limited political space provided by the Burmese military junta; the active armed resistance of the Shan State Army South, together with the bulk of Shan State National Army; and the highly self-conscious Shan civil societies in keeping the national identity alive under intense pressure of the Burmese military junta; are indications of a nation, which refuses to be cowed.

   Given such a backdrop, it is not at all surprising that the majority of the Shan people wants to opt out of the now-defunct union for good. The question also arises as to why the mainstream Shan organizations are endorsing the notion to rebuild a new Federal Union - together with all the other ethnic nationalities, Burman included - instead of an outright total independence and clean sweep secession.

   There are two essential, important factors, which need emphasizing regarding this issue, at least from the mainstream organizations and Shan leadership point of view. One is the ever changing global perspective in relation to the issue of self-determination and the other, the constant transformation of needs and value system or aspiration of a people at a given time and space.

Changing Global Perspective

   In 1945, the United Nations member states count was 41 and by 2002, it has reached 191. Up till 1990, most emerging new states, with a few exceptions like Bangladesh and Singapore, are the product of decolonization program of the United Nations based on the so-called salt-water doctrine. However, the break-up of Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the early 90s has added up some 19 more new states, which raises hope that the disintegration of the existing states will continue. But this expectation was short-lived and with the end of the cold war, the pro-status quo stance gained acceptance again and the disintegration of existing states subsided. During the period of 2000 to 2006, only one new state emerged, which was a mixture of decolonization trend as prescribed by the United Nations and liberation movement or disintegration of an existing state from the point of view of the Indonesian government.

   The global trend seems to be moving towards integration than disintegration, as can be seen by the expansion of European Union, now numbering 25 states. At the same time, the international community's wariness of having to deal with failed states, such as Somalia and Democratic Republic of the Congo, have prompted to reject disintegration and push for more integration.

   If one looks around the conflict spectrum in Asia-Pacific region, most opposition movements against the existing states have toned down their secessionist tendency and are now accommodating autonomy solution or federal system arrangement, rather than secession. The Tamil Tiger of Sri Lanka and the GAM of Ache/Indonesia are good examples, which have grasped the changing international mood in relation to their aspiration of self-determination.

   Christian Hillgruber, in his ¡§The Admission of New States to the International Community " writes: The integration of a new state in the international community does not take place automatically, but through co-optation; that is, by individual and collective recognition on the part of the already existing states. By the procedure of recognition, these states exercise their prerogative to determine in advance whether the newcomer, in their judgment, is able and willing to carry out all its obligations as a subject of international law, whether it will be a reliable member of the international community.

   Shan State is situated between China and Thailand and also shares thousands of kilometers borderline with both states and couldn't expect recognition easily, even if the Shan could throw out the Burmese occupation forces, for both countries view the conflict as an internal one. Furthermore, while China has adopted an Anti-Secession Law on 14 March 2005, Thailand is bound by it commitment in ASEAN to view Burma as a sole political entity and fellow member of the bloc, not to mention the principle of non-intervention and territorial integrity, which are cornerstones of the organization.

Transformation of Needs and Value System

   According to the unpublicized survey conducted by the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), the majority of the Shan people would opt for total independence, if given the chance to choose. It is also not surprising that the people would prefer secession, under such immense rights violations and oppression by the Burmese occupation forces. It couldn't be otherwise.

Again, it boils down to the point if the people's desire could be achieved in the foreseeable future, given the unfavorable international mood on such goal setting. Practically, the Shan are faced with a dilemma to choose between secession and genuine federalism. But it is also important to note that the Federal Proposal of 1961, before the military coup, is the brainchild of the Shan leadership at that time, which was aimed at changing the Burman dominated unitary system into a genuine federal structure with equal status for all ethnic nationalities. All non-Burman ethnic groups endorse this as a balanced and acceptable solution until today. Meanwhile, this proposed arrangement also find acceptance among most of the Burman opposition camps as a way to resolve the conflict as a whole.

   In this connection, it is also important to look at the ever-changing needs and value of the concerned population at a given space and time. The Kurdish people's participation in the recent Iraq federal setup, the undecided faith of the Albanian people in Kosova, the conflict management in Ache/Indonesia, and the ongoing talks between the government of India and Naga people indicated that they are ready to cut a deal less than the originally aimed goal of secession or total independence. This is perhaps lowering the aspiration to a certain degree but nevertheless, a pragmatic approach and in line with the international mood. But this is not to say that the global trend will stay forever in favor of status quo. The people concerned would eventually adjust their needs and value system, according to the prevailing international norm and structure of the time.

Pragmatic Approach

   Finally, if the Shan wants to be heard and advance their aspirations, they would need to seriously think globally and act locally. It would need to sell the idea that it is part and parcel of a viable force, in collaboration with all non-Burman ethnic nationalities and Burman opposition groups, to replace the illegitimate military junta. To do this, "broad coalition-building" among all the opposition is essential, even those within the rank of the enemies, who are ready to reform, embrace justice, equality and democracy should not be neglected.

   The Shan cannot win this fight alone and it is crucial that the "multi-pronged" approach is employed, coupled with the motto of "diverse actions, common goal", as urged time and again by the late Chao Tzang Yawnghwe.

Sai Wansai