Panglong Agreement, Federal Principles and the 2008 Myanmar Constitution

by Kay Latt

Gen Aung San with Sir Huber Rance

Gen Aung San with Sir Huber Rance

In 1947, Bo Gyoke Aung San met with ethnic leaders, mostly Shan, Kachin and Chin, and concluded an agreement in a town named “Panglong.” The agreement became known as the “Panglong Agreement.” A Panglong principle or spirit of equal representation was born along with the Panglong Agreement. What is sad is that the spirit of the agreement was missing in each of the following Burmese constitutions.

So what is the Panglong Agreement and Panglong spirit?

In the Panglong Agreement preamble, it is described: “The members of the Conference, believing that freedom will be more speedily achieved by the Shans, the Kachins and the Chins by their immediate co-operation with the Interim Burmese Government, have accordingly, and without dissentients, agreed:”

With the Panglong Agreement, ethnic leaders entrusted their fate to Gen Aung San to determine their future by achieving absolute independence from the British followed by a power-sharing. In return for their cooperation, Aung San agreed to equal rights for ethnic people and assured them of a Union form of government with power sharing as well as a right of secession. An spirit of mutual trust and mutual benefit was born in the Panglong spirit. But it did not last long.

However, in the 1947 Constitution, ethnic leaders say that real power was not with the lower bodies, resulting in a semi-federal or unitary state in essence. The central government controlled all power at the local, state and central level, leaving non-Burman ethnic groups no power at all. An attempt was made to save the Panlong spirit just before the Ne Win era. In June 1961, more than 200 ethnic leaders from Shan, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Mon and Rakhine met at Taung Gyi in Shan State and held a constitutional review conference in which they demanded a “genuine federal union.”

As promised in election campaigns, U Nu, then the prime minister, convened a National Convention in February 1962 in Rangoon. In this convention, which political parties, ethnic leaders and government representatives attended, Chao Khun Cho, the minister for Shan State, addressed the convention. He pointed out the flaws of the 1947 Constitution and submitted a plan to form union they preferred; to unite Burma as one state; to assure equal power to two houses; to send equal numbers of representatives to a “house of nationalities” and to give limited power to federal government whereas residual power remained in the states.

Gen Ne Win interrupted the process by a coup d’état, claiming he was preventing the union from disintegration. As a result, civil war intensified.

Ne Win suspended the 1947 constitution together with the Panglong Agreement. Ne Win launched propaganda a propaganda campaign linking “federal principles” to the disintegration of the union.

Gen Aung San with ethnic Kachin women

Gen Aung San with ethnic Kachin women

There are 135 races or tribes in Burma according to the military’s account. About half of the so-called 135 races are from Chin State, which makes up about only 3 percent of the population. Burma has only eight constituent states: Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, Karen, Mon and Burman. The Burman is the largest ethnic group, approximately 60 percent of the population, of about 50 million. The remainder is made up of other ethnic nationalities.

In a deeply divided country like Burma, a federal system is the only option for the formation of union. There is no better choice for a country between two most populated countries in the world. How does the Constitution approved in 2008 view federal principles and the Panglong spirit? We can look at it on the basis of what Sao Khun Hkio, then head of Shan State, submitted to the Taungyi Conference: the structure of the state, equality in the House of Nationalities, distribution of power in two Houses and power separation between federal and state governments.

Structure of the Union

A federal union type of constitution should provide for the distribution of state power between the center and constituent units. The constituent units usually possess exclusive authority to exercise power for the benefit of their local area and the authority to deal with their concerns. In the 2008 constitution, there are seven regions and seven states providing respective regions and states equality in status with a strong government in the center.

Based on the SPDC’s design of the union, all seven regions are populated overwhelmingly by ethnic Burman. In other words, equality does not exist for ethnic minorities in terms of representation in the House of Nationalities, or “Amyotha Hluttaw.” Despite the appearance of autonomy at all levels down to the self-administered zones, the states that now comprise very large numbers of minorities have been marginalized and become satellites of the center.

Equality of number in House of Nationalities

The Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities) shall be formed with a maximum number of 224 members including 56 representatives from the Defense Services nominated by the commander-in chief, plus elected members in an equal number of 12 representatives from each region or state. Therefore, the number of representatives of non-Burman and those of Burman will be equal, with only 84 seats representing non-Burman states.

Ethnic groups also complained of this unequal share of representation in the House for Nationalities in the 1947 constitution.

Division of Legislative Power

The legislative power is apportioned to two Houses namely; Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw. They have concurrent power to initiate legislative bills. However, the Union Budget Bill, the most important bill for the whole Union, can only be submitted at the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the two Houses combined), which is a deliberate attempt to ensure centralization. In the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, 84 seats represent ethnic nationalities while Burmans occupy the remainder.

In articles 95 (b) of 2008 Constitution, it states: “If there is disagreement between the Pyithu Hluttaw and the Amyotha Hluttaw concerning a Bill, the Bill shall be discussed and resolved in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.” The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, with only one-eight of the seats representing non-Burman ethnic groups, will determine the outcome.

Power Separation between Federal and State Government

By looking at the legislative duties of the Union legislative list and Region or State legislative list, it is clear that real power resides in the Pyidaungsu (Union) rather than in the regions and states. The list of legislation that can be approved at the Union level includes defense and security, foreign affairs, finance and planning, budgets and taxes, exports, imports, hotels and tourism, agriculture and livestock breeding, energy, electricity, mining and forestry, industry, transport and communication, as well as a social sector including education and health with, in all, 124 items under the aforesaid titles.

The legislative list for regions or states includes finance and planning, agriculture and livestock breeding, energy, electricity, mining and forestry sectors, medium and small-scale commercial production of electricity and salt production. Regions and states are allowed 41 items. Clearly, in the junta’s 2008 Constitution, there is no spirit of Panglong in terms of the constitution’s structure and essence.

The Panglong spirit represented mutual trust and mutual benefit among all ethnic nationalities but those principles have been excluded from the current Constitution, which is likely to foster more division among the ethnic nationalities and the majority Burman ethnic group which holds an unequal share of power.

Monday, October 19, 2009

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EBO South Asia Office
Green Park Main, New Delhi – 110016, India; Telefax  + 91-11-26511207

Euro-Burma Office (EBO)
Square Gutenberg 11/2, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Tel: (32 2) 280 0691 / 280 2452; Fax: (32 2) 280 0310
Website: http://www.euro-burma.eu

The aim of the Euro-Burma Office is to promote the development of democracy in Burma by assisting the Burmese democracy movement to prepare for a transition to democracy.

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