BURMA ALERT - No. 05/03

15 May 2003



The Burma Alert is published by the Associates to Develop Democratic Burma Inc, Canada, in cooperation with the Euro-Burma Office, Brussels.



The Burmese military led by Ne Win first seized power in March 1962. Ne Win ruled under various guises until 1988 when General Saw Maung and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took over. Saw Maung was replaced by General Than Shwe in 1995. The junta changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997.


The democracy movement in general can be viewed as having 2 major components:

  • The ethnic nationalities who have been fighting to preserve their identity and rights since 1948, and
  • The democracy movement that was born in 1988 (including the democracy advocates of the 1970s who responded to Prime Minister U Nu's call to arms.

The two distinct components were first brought together organizationally in the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) in 1988. This was to a large extent the brain-child of the late Tin Maung Win, a veteran of U Nu's democracy army and co-founder of the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma.


The alliance between the democracy movement and the ethnic nationalities was further strengthened when the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) joined forces with the DAB, the ethnic nationalities-based National Democratic Front (NDF) and the National League for Democracy-Liberated Area (NLD-LA) to form the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB).


The Manerplaw Agreement of 1992 signed by the four organizations was a landmark agreement officially binding all parties to the establishment of democracy and a federal system of government.




The ethnic nationalities have in general always been referred to as 'minorities'. This has given rise in Burma and even internationally, to the impression that the ethnic nationalities are somehow inferior to the 'majority'. The military's forty years of jingoist 'nationalism' based on the achievement of Burman kings to the exclusion of others has also reinforced this view. It has not helped that the terms 'tribal', 'hilltibes' or 'hill people' have been used by anthropologists and scholars to describe them. Such descriptions do not do justice to the fact that, prior to January 1948, the ethnic nationalities for the most part lived separately from the Burman in their own homelands where they were the majority and had their own institutions.


In February 1947, Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) attended the 2nd Panglong Conference convened by the Supreme Council of the United Hill Peoples (SCOUHP). As a Member of the Executive Council of the British Governor of Burma, Aung San came to the Conference to persuade the gathered Chin, Kachin and Shan leaders to join the 'Frontier Areas' to 'Ministerial Burma' and together seek early independence from Britain. The Aung San-Atlee Agreement, reached earlier in London in January 1947, had stipulated that the peoples of the Frontier Areas be consulted about their future.


The 1947 Panglong Agreement became the basis for the new Republic of the Union of Burma. The Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry to determine 'the best method of associating the Frontier peoples with the working out of the new constitution for Burma' reported in April 1947 that:


"The importance of the Agreement lies not only in the fact that it settles the form of association during the interim period, but also in its enunciation of certain principles, notably that the frontier peoples should be entitled to fundamental democratic rights, that they should have the right to full autonomy in the internal sphere, and that they should be entitled to receive a measure of assistance from revenues of Ministerial Burma, which are relevant to decision of the ultimate form of association."


Since then, all Burmese constitutions from 1947 (amended to allow for the creation of the Arakan, Mon and Karen States), to Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Programme Party constitution of 1974, to the SPDC's 1993 proposed military constitution, recognized these ethnic states:

  1. Arakan State (Akyab, Kyaukpyu and Sandoway Districts of Ministerial Burma),
  2. Chin State (Chin Hills and the Arakan Hill Tracts of the Frontier Areas),
  3. Kachin State (Myitkyina and Bhamo Districts of the Frontier Areas),
  4. Karen State (Salween District of the Frontier Areas, and eastern Toungoo, parts of Thaton and Amherst Districts of Ministerial Burma),
  5. Kayah State (Karenni States - Frontier Areas),
  6. Mon State (parts of the Thaton and Amherst Districts of Ministerial Burma), and
  7. Shan State (Federated Shan States including Northern and Southern Shan States, the Kachin Hill Tracts of Northern Hsenwi and Mongmit States, Kokang, and Northern and Southern Wa States - Frontier Areas).

The following Frontier Areas were incorporated into Ministerial Burma:

  • Naga Hills District (including Somra Tract and the Thaungdut and Singkaling Hkamti Shan States)
  • Upper Chindwin District (Homalin Sub-division and Tamu township)

While each state is named after the major ethnic group in the state, it is recognized that each state is multi-ethnic as is 'Burma Proper' or 'Ministerial Burma'. The basis for the states is historical rather than racial.


The seven ethnic states make up 57% of Burma's land area and their combined population account for approximately 40% of the population of Burma.


The ethnic nationalities can be categorized today into three political components:

  • Political parties that contested the 1990 elections,
  • Political organizations that have a cease-fire agreements with the military, and
  • Politcal organizations that are still resisting the Burmese military.

Arakan State

The first armed 'uprising' in Arakan was against the British in 1946 by U Sein Da, a Buddhist monk. His Arakan Peoples Liberation Party continued fighting for an Arakan state after independence. The Muslim 'Mujahids' also took up arms in December 1947, just before independence, in a bid to establish an Islamic state in Arakan.


Later, other Rakhaing groups took up arms to preserve Rakhaing identity and rights. In 1991-92, the Burmese military expelled hundreds of thousands of 'Rohingya' Muslims from Arakan claiming they were illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The 'Rohingyas' claim they are an ethnic nationality which has lived in Arakan for centuries with their own Muslim rajas. 'Buddhists' Rakhaing groups dispute this. They have no problems accepting that there are Rakhaings who are Muslims, but deny that there is such an ethnic nationality group as 'Rohingyas'. They claim that the 'Rohingyas' are ethnically Bengalis, not an ethnic nationality of Burma like the Rakhaing.


The main political groups today are:


Political Parties

  • ALD - Arakan League for Democracy, won 11 seats in the 1990 elections (members in Burma and in exile).

Ceasefire Groups

  • Rakhine State All National Races Solidarity Party led by Saw Tun U (ceasefire 06 Apr 97).

Non-Ceasefire Groups

  • ALP - Arakan Liberation Party led by Khaing Myo Khaing.
  • ANRO - Arakan National Rohingya Organization led by Salim.
  • ARIF -Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front led by Nurul Islam
  • DPA - Democratic Party of Arakan led by Aung Sein Tha
  • NUPA - National United Party of Arakan led by Dr Khin Maung
  • Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) led by Mohammed Yunus.

Chin State

The Chin people are one of the most loyal to the concept of the Union of Burma. Of the ten battalions in the original Burma Army formed in September 1945, two battalions were made up entirely of Chins. Many are still serving in the Burma Army today. The first uprising only took place in 1961 and gained strength in 1963 after General Ne Win seized power and arrested Chin leaders who advocated federalism. The main political groups today are:

Political Parties

  • Chin National League for Democracy (3 seats).
  • Hmuh Thang Thantlang (independent - 1 seat)
  • Lian Uk (independent - 1 seat)
  • Mara Peoples Party (1 seat)
  • Zomi National Congress - (2 seats)

Non-Ceasefire Groups

  • Chin National Front led by Thomas
  • Zomi Reunification Organization led by Tan Lian Pau

Kachin State

The Kachins also contributed two battalions to the original Burma Army. Faith in the loyalty of the Kachins was, however, shaken when in February 1949, Naw Seng commanding the 1st Kachin Rifles refused to attack the 1st Karen Rifles who had taken Toungoo. He instead joined the rebels and after failing to take Rangoon proceeded to occupy Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State and then Lashio in the north. Naw Seng retreated into China in 1950. Although he wanted Kachin independence, Naw Seng made a come-back in 1968 with the Communist Party of Burma.

The Kachin Independence Army was set up in February 1961 by Zau Seng in northern Shan State. The KIA then took over large areas of Kachin State. The KIO agreed to a ceasefire with the Burmese military in 1993.

The main political groups today are:

Political Parties

  • Kachin State National Congress for Democracy won 3 seats in 1990.

Ceasefire Groups

  • Kachin Independence Organization/Army led by Tuja (Ceasefire - 01 Oct.93)
  • New Democratic Army led by Sakhone Ting Yin (Ceasefire - 15 Dec.89)

Karen State

The Karen also contributed two battalions to the original Burma Army. In fact, Karen leader Saw Ba U Gyi participated in negotiations with Lord Mountbatten in Kandy (Sri Lanka) together with Aung San over the formation of the Burma Army in 1945 and the first Commander-in-Chief of the Burma Army was Lieut-General Smith-Dun, a Karen. Saw Ba U Gyi was also a Member of the Executive Council of the British Governor of Burma. He founded the Karen National Union in 1947 to safeguard Karen interests, with the Karen National Defence Organization as its armed wing. The Karen armed forces are today known as the Karen National Liberation Army.


The Karen had originally wanted a separate Karen state covering all the areas where Karens lived including Insein and Hanthawaddy Districts, Nyaunglebin subdivision of Pegu District, Irrawaddy Division, and Tenessarim Division. Negotiations broke down as chaos engulfed the newly formed government of U Nu in 1948. The Communist Party of Burma attempted to seize control of the country; Aung San's private army, the People's Volunteer Organization - (veterans from the Japanese war) went underground; the paramilitary Union Military Police, Special Police Reservists, and three of the four Burma Rifle battalions mutinied; and 80 Karens celebrating Christmas in the Tavoy District were massacred by government troops. Fighting broke out in 1949 and the KNDO took over large areas of the country. Saw Ba U Gyi was assassinated by government troops in August 1950. A much smaller Karen State excluding the Irrawaddy delta, Pegu and Tenasserim Divisions was established in 1952.


The main political groups today are:

Political Parties

  • Karen State National Organization (1 seat)

Ceasefire Group

  • DKBA - Democratic Karen Buddhist Army led by Tha Htoo Kyaw (Ceasefire Dec.94)
  • NKPA - National Karen Peace Army led by Tha Mu Hel (Ceasefire Feb.97)
  • Former KNU led by Padoh Aung San (Ceasefire Apr.99)

Non-Ceasefire Groups

  • Karen National Union led by Padoh Saw Ba Thinn

Kayah State/ Karenni

Karenni is made up of the western States of Bawlake and Kyebogyi and the eastern State of Kantarawaddy. These were never annexed to the British Crown. They had the status of feudatory states and paid annual tributes to the British. The Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry in 1947 could not ascertain whether or not the Karenni wanted to join the Union of Burma as proposed at Panglong but recommended that they be represented in the Constituent Assembly. As a result, the 1947 Constitution designated the Karenni states as a constituent unit of the Union of Burma known as "the Kayah State".


This was not accepted by the United Karenni Independent States which was established in September 1946 to preserve the 'independent' status of Bawlake, Kyebogyi and Kantarawaddy. In August 1948, Karenni leader Bee Tu Reh, who founded the UKIS was arrested and murdered by government troops. An armed rebellion broke out led by Saw Maw Reh and when the KNDO occupied Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State in February 1949, the Karenni joined forces with the Karen. The main political groups today are:

Political Parties

  • Kayah State All Nationalities League for Democracy (2 seats)

Ceasefire Groups

  • Kayan National Guards led by Gabriel Byan (Ceasefire - 27 Feb.92)
  • Karenni Nationalities Peoples Liberation Front led by Htun Kyaw (Ceasefire - 09 May 94)
  • Kayan New Land Party led by Shwe Aye (Ceasefire - 26 Jul.94)

Non-Ceasefire Groups

  • Karenni National Progressive Party /Army led by Hteh Bupeh

NEXT ISSUE - The Ethnic Nationalities: Mon and Shan States; and the Democracy Movement of 1988.

Other Sources:

  1. Burma - Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, Martin Smith, Zed Books, 1991;
  2. Burma in Revolt, Bertil Lintner, Silkworm Books, 1999;
  3. Democracy and Politics in Burma, Edited by Marc Weller, NCGUB, 1991