(A Brown Bag Seminar organized by the Council for Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA)

By Zo T. Hmung

October 25, 2000

I am honored to speak today about the ethnic political crisis in the Union of Burma at Yale University, one of the finest universities in the world. I am thankful to Prof. Michael R. Dove, Chair of the Council on Southeast Asia Studies, and Prof. James Scott for this kind invitation.

Approximately, Burma has a population of 48 million people. Of those 48 million, 68% are Burman, and the rest, 32 %, belong to the ethnic groups such as Arakanese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, etc. These are only estimated statistics as there is no proper documented information available inside Burma. The ethnic people have their own religions, culture, and languages. There are different religions such as Buddhism, Muslim, Christianity, and Hinduism. Burmans belong to the majority religion, Buddhism while most ethnic Chins and Kachins are Christians.

The ethnic political issue is important to Burma's politics. Because in order to put an end to civil war, which has spanned over half a century in Burma, the ethnic political crisis must first be resolved in accordance with the full consent of the ethnic minority people. Therefore, Burma's political history, especially how the minority and the majority groups came to live together under the Union government, needs to be addressed.

The Formation of the Union Government

To be more precise, I will take an example from Chin history, as I am an ethnic Chin. In 1886, the British annexed Burma and ruled Burma and India together, from India, known as the British-Burma. At that time, Chin territory was an independent territory with its own political administration, culture, religion, and language, without any outside political interference. Ten years later, in 1896, the British occupied Chin territory and ruled it, together with Burma and India, from India. Before the British's occupation, Chinland had lived independently since time immemorial. In 1937, for administrative convenience, the British divided her administration into two parts known as British-Burma and British-India. Chinland was ruled from British-Burma.

On December 20, 1946, Mr. Clement Richard Attlee, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, proposed granting independence to Burma at the House of Commons. As a result, Aung San, who led the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), was invited to London to speak on ways to transfer to independence. Unfortunately, the Labour Party government in London had not invited any representatives from the ethnic groups, even though the ethnic people had voiced concern that Aung San could not represent their will concerning their future status with the British government.

The British ignored the complaints of the ethnic groups and asked Aung San to gain consent of the Frontier Areas (Frontier areas means ethnic peoples). This unfortunate lack of representation became part of the impetus for the ethnic political crisis that is so evident today. If ethnic groups were given self-determination to choose their own destiny by the Labour Party government in London, today's political histories would be very different from today's ethnic political crisis in the Union of Burma. The AFPFL had the right to represent the Burmans only, not the ethnic minority groups.

AFPFL representative Aung San, for the interim government of Burma, and Clement Richard Attlee, for the British government, signed an agreement on January 27, 1947, for Burma to become an independent country within a year. The second step of political strategy for Aung San was to convince the ethnic groups to join the interim Burmese government during the transitional period, and to later form the Union government based on equal footing of all Union members. In order to convince the ethnic minority to join the interim government of Burma, the AFPFLís campaign message was to gain independence from the British first, and then to form a Union government together. This campaign message of independence became powerful and convincing as the British had been ruling them for more than half a century. Everyone wanted to gain independence from British colonial rule.

Within a month of Aung San's return from England to Burma, representatives of Burma led by Aung San, along with representatives of the Chin, Kachin and Shan, signed an agreement popularly known as the Panglong Agreement at the Panglong Conference in Shan State on February 12, 1947. February 12 became Union Day in the Union of Burma and is observed as an official holiday in Burma. This clearly indicates how these different groups came together to form the Union. The Preamble of the Panglong Agreement said: "The members of the Conference, believing that freedom will be more speedily achieved by the Shans, the Kachins, and the Chins by their immediate cooperation with the Interim Burmese government"[1] The basic concept of each state administration in a federal system of government was evident in the Panglong Agreement. Article 5 of the Agreement said, "full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas is accepted." [2]

A common interest, aimed for mutual benefits, had gathered together the Burmans and the ethnic people to form a Union government. Based on the Panglong conference, the Right of Secession was enshrined in the 1947 Union Constitution, Chapter X. This Right of Secession meant if one of the Union members did not find benefits, or if they lost benefits within the Union government, that member had the right to depart from the UnionIn my opinion, as the proposed Union belonged to different groups with different territories/countries, the name of the government should not be Burma. It should have a different name, one that could represent all Union members.

Therefore, the Union government, according to the Panglong Agreement, was of the Union government of the Panglong signatories, which was based on trust, faith, and mutual benefits. Kio Mang, a Chin representative from Haka town, Chin State, said he signed the Panglong Agreement because he trusted in Aung San. The spirit of the Union and a trust of each other mattered to the Union-founding members.

A Lack of Federalism in the 1947 Union Constitution

After the Panglong Agreement, the elections to the Constituent Assembly followed in April. In this very first election, there were 255 seats; 210 seats were for Burmans and only 45 seats went to non-Burman ethnic groups. Like today's National League for Democracy (NLD), the people mandated the AFPFL, led by Aung San, as it was the party that took lead in the independence struggle for the Burmans. The above seats meant that the Burmans could control the government and drive the Union government in their own way. Chances for the non-Burman ethnic groups at the central government level were almost nil. However, it was the transitional period and the priority was about independence from British within a year. My assumption is that the non-Burman ethnic groups did not focus on the importance of the election.

In June 1947, Aung San led the drafting of the Union constitution for the future Union government, in accordance with the Panglong Agreement, to be a federal system of governance. Unfortunately, Aung San and his cabinets were assassinated on July 19, 1947, only one month after drafting had begun. U Nu headed the AFPFL continuance of the Union constitution drafting by appointing Tin Tut, Sir Ba U, E Maung, and Kyaw Myint. All were Burmans educated in the law school of Cambridge. U Chan Htoon was appointed as a constitutional adviser. No ethnic group participated in this constitutional drafting process. This process began the questioning of federalism in the Union of Burma. U Chan Htoon himself admitted that the Union Constitution did not represent the spirit of Union, which was federalism. He said: "Our constitution in theory federal, is in practice unitary."[3]

On September 24, 1947, the Union Constitution was adopted, becoming effective on January 4, 1948, the date that Burma gained independence. The Union Constitution was not even federal in theory; it was both unitary in theory and practice. In a unitary system of government, the government is centralized wherein the federal state's powers are placed under the central government's direct control.

I would like to take an example from the Chin Special Division to show the relationship between the federal state and the central Union government. For Chin Special Division, the President of the Union government appointed a Minister for Chin Affairs from a member of the Union government, upon nomination by the Union Prime Minister. The Union Minister member designated as a Minister for Chin Affairs was the head of the government. The power of the Minister's administration for Chin Affairs was subject to the approval by the Union government in all state affairs such as education, culture, etc. Therefore, the Minister was under the direct control of the central Union government. There is the Chin Affairs Council comprising of all members of Parliament elected by the Chin people.

The Chin Affairs Council's function was simply to aid and advise the Minister for Chin Affairs in matters such as recruitment, postings, and transferring civil services[4][4]. Therefore, they too were under direct control of the central Union government. Moreover, there was no provision for passing bills or the right to legislation of the Chin Special Division in the 1947 Union Constitution. This is called a system of centralized government putting every power in the center. As such, the Chin people and Chin territory were in the hands of the Burmese.

Another example is of the Kachin State. Like Chin Special Division, the Kachin had State Council and a State government. The Minister for Kachin Affairs was the head of the government. Members of the State Council had partial rights to pass bills of the state. The problem was, the bills should be presented to the President for approval, and should be subject to the Presidentís signature, in order to come into existence. And the State can only recommend the passing of the law to the Union parliament.[5]

Therefore, both in Chin Special Division and Kachin State, all powers, both in State and central government, went to central government. In a federal system of government, the State Council or the federal state should be given full authority to function independently, especially in the case of Burma as it consists of different groups. The federal state should have had the right to legislation, especially in school, police, press, and other individual state affairs.In addition, the constitution should provide for the right of passing bills. Neither the Union government nor the central authorities should control or impose her authorities to federal state council or the state government. Even in the local government, there should be self-government, as there are many different dialects and cultures. The federal government's role should be in the matters of monetary issues, taxation, foreign affairs, communication, and federal armed forces. All these were absent in the Union Constitution of 1947. Therefore, the AFPFL, led by U Nuís constitution of 1947, aimed to control all power in local, state, and central government. The Burman majority enjoyed all authority from top to bottom and bottom to top.

In summary, the 1947 Union Constitution betrayed Aung San's Union as well as the Panglong Agreement. This constitutional crisis led to ethnic groups meeting in Taungyi on February 25, 1961 and submitting a proposal of federalism to parliament. Unfortunately, General Ne Win took power from U Nu, the Prime Minister of the Union government, claiming non-integration of the country on March 2, 1962. The ethnic issues continued to worsen.

General New Win's Policy of Burmanization and Ethnic Cleansing

Right after his military coup in 1962, General Ne Win began using a policy of Burmanization, also known as assimilation that means making all ethnic groups into Burmans. He abolished the 1947 Constitution and ruled by guns. It was now forbidden to teach or learn ethnic languages in the universities and colleges. Burman cultural dress, such as Taihpung and Longkyi, became the official dress in offices and schools. In Chin State, there is not a single college or university. As result, many Chin people could not pursue higher education and became uneducated. Chins who attended the Mandalay University and Rangoon University were indoctrinated in Burman cultures. This is a calculated assimilation policy of Ne Win to assimilate all ethnic groups into Burmans.

As a last resort, more ethnic minority groups took up arms against Ne Winís dictatorial rule leaving families, relatives and friends behind in an attempt to regain their inherent rights and to safeguard their freedom. Ethnic civilians do not escape the Burmese Army's eye either because the Burmese Army regards them as supporters of the ethnic armed forces. They are subject to torture, imprisonment, and arbitrary arrest along with forced relocation. In order to escape the Burmese Army's persecution, ethnic groups have fled to other countries for safe haven.

The Revolutionary Council, from 1962 to 1974, and the Burma Socialist Program Party, the one party system, did not satisfy the majority of Burmans either. The Military regime not only failed the economic policy of the country, but also spent approximately 40% of the national income for the defense budget in order to strengthen the armed forces to fight against the ethnic armed forces. It had been used for ethnic cleansing activities. Selling her rich natural resources, such as hardwood to neighboring countries including Thailand could not solve the economic crisis. To bail out of the economic crisis, the only choice left was applying for the Least Developed Country status. In 1987, Burma became one of the ten poorest countries in the world.

One of the main reasons for the 1988 uprising was freedom from the Burmese dictatorial rule, which included economic freedom, cultural freedom, educational freedom, etc. After the uprising, the regime doubled armed forces along with the doubling of opium production. Production of opium became one of the main sources of income for the Burmese Army. Most of opium production had been taken places in ethnic areas such as in the Wa area of Shan State. This has not only been a threat to Burmans and the ethnic groups, but also to the international community. The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 1999, released by the Department of State in March 2000, describes Burma as follows: "Burma has been, and continues to be, one of the world's largest producers of illicit opium. Burmese opium production doubled in 1989."[6]

The Burmese military regime regards the ethnic minority groups as the enemy. Two months ago, on August 7, 2000, the Central Executive Committee of the National League for Democracy (NLD) released a four points statement condemning the burning of Chin Christian churches, houses, school buildings and live stock. The fourth point of the statement said: "In Burma today, under the rule of the military dictators, if you are not a Burman Buddhist you are discriminated against. The military dictators regard you as an enemy." [7] This statement truthfully highlights the crux of the political crisis in Burma. For non-Burman groups, and those who oppose the SPDC, life in Burma is full of fear.

Two weeks ago, I was in Guam interviewing an estimated 280 refugees from Burma, mostly from Chin State on human rights issues. One thing that strikes me most concerns Chin girls. I was told that the Burmese Army is targeting Chin girls for marriage. These girls, and their families, obtain more opportunity by marrying members of the Burmese Army, and in the same way Burmese soldiers who marry Chin girls are promoted in rank.

Chin women who married Burmese soldiers later received military training at the Football ground in Haka. They are then used to combat the activities of the Chin National Front. These Chin girls are used for both purposes of assimilation and attacking the Chin people. A high school teacher at Haka town, Chin State told me another painful story. One day the Army Captain came to his high school classroom saying that he needed the most beautiful girl in the classroom. Shortly thereafter, a Chin girl was taken to his house where it was later discovered she had been raped. Her family said they were afraid to report the rape to higher authorities knowing there would be no action taken and the family would surely be accused of lying. These acts committed crimes against humanity.

Chin State, my State, is a restricted area. Chin-Americans could not travel to Chin State to visit their relatives. Foreigners are also not allowed to visit Chin State. In Chin State, approximately 1% is Burman; they are the Burmese Army and their families. Not less than 99% of the population is Chin people. One percent of the population holds power over the will of 99% of the population. The U.N. Human Rights Commissionís Rapporteur Rajsoomer Lallah's report on Burma, released on October 16, 2000, said that the worst violence committed by the Burmese Army was against ethnic minorities.[8] This is about ethnic cleansing.††

According to the report of the U.S Committee for Refugees 2000 World Refugee Survey, at least 200,000 refugees from Burma live in Thailand, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, and other countries. Approximately, up to one million people are internally displaced.[9] These figures provide a clear picture of the political crisis in Burma, a crisis, which is about ethnic discrimination because not less than 90% of those who took refuge outside the country, and those internally displaced, are the ethnic people, not Burmans.

The International Community's Role

The United Nations General Assembly has made resolutions on Burma for nine consecutive years. Recently, on October 10, 2000, the U.S Congress passed Resolution H. Con 328 including implementation of the results of 1990 general election. I think the U.N, the U.S, and other governments have a legitimate and powerful role to play in implementing the results of the 1990 Elections based on the will of the Burmese people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) article 21: 3 says, "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government."[10] The people of Burma have expressed their will, voting against the military regime and voting for democracy. The international community has the right to demand that the Burmese military regime transfer power to the 1990 election winners.

In addition to the results of the 1990 election, it would also be helpful to concentrate more on the refugee situation and problems of the internally displaced persons inside the country, including ethnic cleansing, genocide, and war crimes committed by the Burmese Army. From a humanitarian ground, the international community has a major role to play in todayís ethnic political problems in Burma. I strongly believe issues such as refugees in border areas, and internally displaced persons, would provide a sense of urgency to the international community, hence speeding up political change in Burma. Issue such as ethnic cleansing could become a spotlight in the efforts to implement the 1990 election and its legitimacy.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Chief Sadako Ogata's recent visit to a Karen refugee camp in the Thai-Burma border area on October 17, 2000 was very encouraging to refugees themselves, the ethnic groups, and the democratic forces, including the international community. Ms. Ogata shared her insights upon her return from the refugee camp, saying to reporters, "I am sorry to say I was quite shocked."[11]

Indeed, the SPDC does care about the international community's voice and pressure. They respond to the truth of events by disseminating wrong and untruthful news to the international community. For instance, on October 17, 2000, U Win Aung, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the delegation of the Union of Myanmar to the Millennium Summit in New York, spoke at the Summit saying, "We do no harm to anyone. We do not commit any atrocities".[12] Therefore, the involvement and role of the international community is crucial to motivating political change in the Union of Burma.

Lessons from the Past

People should look to the future. However, many lessons are to be learned from the past. One key area is from a Panglong perspective. From a Panglong perspective, the Union existed because of the Panglong signatories. The spirit of Panglong should be restored, respected, and honored because the Union is not of the Burmans alone; rather it is of all ethnic groups. The Union Constitution should also be a federalism giving full functioning power to each state government. Equally important, the Right of Secession should be enshrined in the new Union Constitution.

These were dreams of the Unionís founding members. When we look back at the 1990 elections, the NLD won 396 seats out of 485 seats. The SPDC won only 10 seats and the other 79 seats went to independent and ethnic groups. In accordance with this election rule, Pyithu Hluttaw (People's Assembly) was to form the Union government, which was based upon the size of population. As Burmans are majority in number, it seems that the Union government will always go to the hands of the Burman majority and the ethnic groups will have a hard time defending or proposing their agendas at Union Parliament. Therefore, "drafting the new Union Constitution of Burma will indeed be a crucial question for the future Union of Burma."[13]


After the 1988 democratic uprising, both ethnic groups and Burman democratic forces have joined together in the efforts to restore genuine democracy in the Union of Burma. There is hope for the future. This hope should be based on equal footings and equal status of all the Union members.

The independence hero, Aung San once said to the ethnic people; "If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat".[14] A Kyat is a Burmese currency. In other words, if a Chin gets one dollar, a Burmese also will get an equal amount, which is a dollar. It is about the right to equality. Aung Sanís dream for the Union government was based on equality and self-determination. Unfortunately, the AFPFL governments and the Burmese military regime ignored Aung San's dream. I believe Burmaís pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, being the daughter of Aung San, surely knows her father's dream.




[1] See Panglong Agreement. The Panglong Agreement was signed at Panglong village in Shan State, Burma

[2] See Panglong Agreement. In this context, Frontier Areas were understood as non-Burman areas.

[3] Tinker, Hugh. The Union of Burma. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. P. 30

[4] See The 1947 Union Constitution, Part V: Sections: 196, 197, 198

[5] Seethe 1947 Union Constitution, Part II- 166-170

[6] The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 1999 released by the Department of State in March 2000, P. 5.

[7] Central Executive Committee, National League for Democracy, Statement 124 (8/00), 7 August 2000, Rangoon

[8] See Rapporteur Rajsoomer Lallahís Report on Burma

[9] See U.S. Committee for Refugees Website, World Refugee Survey 2000, P 133.

[10] See UN Commission on Human Rights website

[11] See BurmaNet News website, October 17, 2000.

[12] See Myanmar Information Committee website, Information Sheet No. B-1525 (I) 9 September, 2000.

[13] Hmung, Zo T. ďMy Vision for ChinlandĒ. Chin National Journal(1997): 109.

[14] Smith, Martin. Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London, Zed Books Ltd. 1991. p. 78