The Pyidaungzu, Federalism and Burman Elites: 
A Brief Analysis

By Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe

Federalism is not quite understood in Burma. In fact, it would not be wrong to say it is grossly misunderstood by -- among many others -- the Burman population segment, or at least by its armed elites (or elites in uniform).

To armed Burman elites, Federalism is synonomous with the destruction or the disintegration of the Union. The Burman-dominated military led by General Ne Win introduced and entrenched this idea when they usurped power in 1962.

The coup-makers declared that they had to seize power to save the Union, that the Union was endangered by the federalist demands or aspiration of, in particular, Shan sawbwas (Chaofas or ruling princes). They alleged that Shan princes, by advocating federalism, were plotting hand-in-glove with foreign power to destroy the Union.

Quite a few Burmans -- some elements of the urban elite segment -- swallowed this falsehood, and were glad for the coup, until the military shot at and coldly killed or wounded several hundred Rangoon University students on July 7th, 1962 (barely four months after the coup).

The charges levelled by the military that the Shan-led proposal for federalism was aimed at destroying the Union betrays the military's total ignorance of what the term "Union" -- Pyidaungzu (in Burmese) -- means.

As a matter of fact, in Burmese, the meaning is crystal clear: namely, that the "Pyidaungzu" (the Union or the Union of Burma) is a collection of many countries, with the strong implication that they are equal and co-independent.

Moreover, the notion advanced by the military and swallowed whole by some Burman elite elements that federalism equals the disintegration of the Myanmar Pyidaungzu also ignores the Panglong Accord and Spirit. Successive military regimes and rulers -- from Ne Win to Saw Maung, to Than Shwe, Khin Nyunt, Maung Aye, etc. -- have extolled the Panglong Accord and the Panglong Spirit and have celebrated, year after year, after year, the signing of the Accord as "Union Day" (Pyidaungzu Ne).

Such being the case, the military's equation of federalism with the destruction of the Union is either total ignorant rubbish, or merely a ploy to mislead the Burman populace, to justify their unlawful act.

The meaning of Panglong is clear, made clear by U Aung San (formerly Bogyoke) and leaders of the ruling AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League) party. The meaning is none other than that the Shan, Kachin, Chin and other nationalities agreed -- jointly and unitedly -- to wrest independence from the British. Here again, the implication is that the Pyidaungzu (the Union) that came into being in 1948 is made up of co-independent and equal states.

The principle of co-independence and equality (or vice versa) of member states is precisely what is at the the core of Federalism. In other words, Federalism and Union (Pyidaungzu) are one and the same word. Federalism is the Union, and the Union (Pyidaungzu) is Federalism.

To say, therefore, that Federalism equals the disintegration of the Pyidaungzu (the Union) is not only illogical and uninformed, but dim witted.

Since 1988, democratic Burman leaders, forces, groups, including parliamentarians have come to accept Federalism, the establishment of a democratic, Federal Union, as the ultimate goal of the people and the country.

Nonetheless, there is still much to be done. It does seem that Burman leaders and cadres (or some of them) in the democratic movement itself, have agreed to Federalism without sincerely accepting the principle of co-independence and equality of all member/constituent states and ethnic segments. Some do not even try to understand what they have committed themselves to.

Quite a few Burman leaders (and cadres, etc.) in the democracy movement still believe that the restoration of the 1947 Constitution or such an arrangement is adequate. They seem to think that the 1947 Constitution is a federal constitution, that it expresses the Panglong Spirit.

In truth, the 1947 Constitution contravenes the Panglong Spirit. The principle contravention is the setting up of one state -- the Burma State or Burma Proper -- as the Mother State (Pyi Ma, in Burmese).

What this means is that the Burma State, as the Pyi Ma or Mother State, was the central power to which other member states of the Union were, or have to be, subordinated to. Clearly, such an arrangement is colonial in nature. And equally clear is the fact that the 1947 Constitution does not in any way, shape, or form fits in with the Panglong Spirit. A return to the 1947 Constitution or a similar kind of arrangement is therefore not adequate.

An important area or issue that Burman leaders (and cadres, etc.) in the democracy movement must look into, if they understand at all the meaning of the term "Union" in the Burmese language -- Pyidaungzu -- is the need to establish the Burma State as one state, one among other member or constituent states (and equal to them, not superior nor subordinate).

In other words, in a Pyidaungzu, the status of the Burma State (and by extension, the status/power of the Burman elites) will not be different from that of, say, the Shan or the Chin State or Shan and Chin leaders and elites.

In a Pyidaungzu, all member states will have equal power and equal autonomy, and all will have equal voice and power vis-a-vis the federal center (the federal legislature and government and associated federal agencies and bureaucracies).

In a real Pyidaungzu (Union) the federal center represents and act on behalf of all member/constituent states on the basis of equality, regardless of the size or population of any member/constituent state.

Moreover, in a real Pyidaungzu, the real well-being of the people and as well developmental programs and projects, etc., are in the hands of the member/constituent states. As such, real power to get things done, to do things, and so on, lies with the governments and legislatures of the member/constituent states. They do not lie in the hands of the federal government, not directly.

The function of the federal government, bureaucracies, agencies, etc., is to serve its member/constituent states, or coordinate among them, not to command or control them. Such being so, Burman elites and leaders -- if they love their people, the Burmans, must focus their attention and energy on the Burma State and its government, as must nationalities' elites and leaders on their respective states and governments. (NOTE: Can it be said that Burman leaders and elites do not love the Burmans, that they are in love with power, with the idea of being "national" leaders, without possessing, however, the qualification to match their ambition or aspiration?).

Burman elites and leaders must therefore re-orient themselves to serving their own Burman people, to develop them, improve their lives, etc., instead of aspiring to be great "national" leaders, big bosses, and big brothers of the alleged "more backward" areas and ethnic groups. The aspiration to be big brothers, big bosses -- overlooking one's own ethnic group -- is an expression of a colonial mentality. Colonialism and the Pyidaungzu concept are like oil and water. They are not compatible, and directly contradict each other.

If Burman elites and leaders are serious about the Pyidaungzu, the Panglong Accord, the Panglong Spirit, national harmony and so on, they -- like nationalities' elites and leaders -- should get down to studying and understanding the nuts and bolts of federalism, the nature of federal parliament and government, the rights and powers (executive, legislative, and others) vested in constituent/member states, and the relation between the two levels of governance and administration. A question that is crucial for the future well-being and prosperity of the country and for the stability and strength of the Pyidaungzu therefore is: Are the Burman elites and leaders (cadres, etc.) ready to love and serve their ethnic compatriots, the Burman, more than their personal ambition, the ambition to be "national" leaders? Or putting it differently, can they resist the temptation to exploit their own ethnic group, the Burman, in order to boost their personal ambition?

In other words, the cardinal question is: are the Burman elites and leaders (and cadres, etc.) ready build the Pyidaungzu, or are they interested only in obtaining power, status, and wealth for themselves by exploiting their own Burman compatriots?