Lessons from Panglong (Part I)

Editor’s note: We launch our forum on Panglong with the following article, which will be split into two posts. It was written by Tea Circle co-editor Matthew Walton and originally published in March 2014 at Asia Times Online It has been only slightly updated (essentially, only the names have changed) because the dynamics of the peace process have remained largely unchanged in the past two years. The original can be found here. Please feel free to respond to any of the points raised in these posts in your own submissions to the forum.

In response to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for a “21st Century Panglong,” it is useful to look back at the history of the Panglong Conference to examine its dynamics and effects, in order to draw lessons for nation-building in contemporary Myanmar. This article briefly considers ten lessons from Panglong and their significance for the current peace process, as well as two broader lessons drawn from post-conflict peace-building around the world in the hope of fostering more critical dialogue about Panglong, what it was, what it wasn’t, and how it is relevant today.

  1. Get it in writing

The Panglong Agreement included the promise that “full autonomy is agreed to in principle.” This was a rather vague clause that wasn’t actually included in the 1947 constitution. Many non-Burman leaders who attended the conference trusted independence hero General Aung San and hoped that he would honor the informal promises he made to them, such as “If Burma gets one kyat, you will get one kyat.”

Unfortunately, his assassination in 1947 meant that he never had a chance to do this. Although this wasn’t always the case, contemporary political groups seem to have gradually learned this lesson and even the least fruitful ceasefire negotiations these days seem to end with some sort of written agreement, if only an understanding to continue meeting. These written documents will be absolutely necessary to hold parties accountable in the future, both domestically and internationally.

  1. Implementation matters

Written agreements are important, but there must also be agreement on how they will be implemented, especially as the legal status of an agreement might not always be clearly enforceable. The 1947 constitution wasn’t exactly a federal constitution, but it wasn’t necessarily inconsistent with a federal structure. The constitution was implemented in a unitary way, which betrayed the expectations of non-Burman groups. It’s also important to note that there have been a number of written ceasefire agreements signed by the Myanmar government and military over the years, many of which have been broken. A written agreement is necessary, but of course not sufficient to ensure that both parties will follow through.

For current political discussions, it will be important to be clear about who will be responsible for implementation. What types of oversight will there be after an agreement and who will enforce it? Some of these mechanisms, just as the Joint Monitoring Committees (JMC), have been written into the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), although they will have to be clarified further if and when other groups join. Additionally, while the wording of any document is important, it will also be necessary to consider whether or not the parties have similar understandings of the intent of the agreements. Assumptions about these key questions resulted in disappointment with the way the Panglong Agreement was incorporated into the 1947 constitution and the way that constitution was implemented.

Participants will also need to consider more robust enforcement mechanisms. If the Tatmadaw or an ethnic armed group violates the terms of a ceasefire, what will the penalty be? Will it be enough to ensure compliance? Again, the JMCs are an important first step but are not designed to shoulder a burden beyond monitoring and reporting. At a time when Western governments have been dropping or suspending sanctions left and right and encouraging massive aid and investment, it might be prudent to consider explicitly tying some of those benefits to a ceasefire in order to encourage all parties to honor their agreements.

  1. Trust is critical…

There was actually another multi-ethnic gathering that took place at Panglong several months before the more famous Panglong Conference. This was an important opportunity used by non-Burman leaders to build trust among themselves. General Aung San had also been traveling around the country in the year leading up to the conference and many non-Burman accounts of the time reflect a growing trust in his willingness to listen to and consider non-Burman concerns.

A contemporary political settlement would need to acknowledge the difficult truth that this kind of trust does not exist in Myanmar today. After decades of civil conflict, most non-Burman groups do not trust the government or the military, with good reason. Additionally, military divide-and-conquer tactics as well as the failures of various attempted united fronts have eroded trust between many non-Burman groups, making negotiations more complicated. The split between signatory and non-signatory groups has further cemented some of these divisions. While recognizing the advantages in bargaining collectively, non-Burman groups should not give in to the temptation to suppress dissenting viewpoints within their own ranks in order to present a united front; similarly, neither the government nor the international community should expect or demand a single, unitary “ethnic” perspective.

  1. …but don’t rely on individuals

Many of the non-Burman leaders gradually came to trust General Aung San and, whatever his actual intentions were, when he was assassinated the country was left without a mediating figure. Much of the mainstream media coverage surrounding the previous peace talks suggested that many non-Burman leaders grew to respect and trust President’s Office Minister U Aung Min. Many non-Burman leaders have expressed similar confidence in both Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her lead negotiator, Dr Tin Myo Win. However, there are several reasons to be concerned with this assumption.

First, when it comes to a ceasefire (and a possible future political settlement), the military will still make any final decisions and neither NLD representative has any control over the Tatmadaw. Second, while non-Burman leaders may have endorsed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in the peace process, many continue to express skepticism regarding her ability or willingness (and that of other NLD leaders) to fully understand and appreciate non-Burman ethnic grievances. This could suggest limitations to her role as a mediator, since she is, in fact, also a stakeholder (a crucial point to recognize). These elements make it very risky to rely on an individual in this sort of situation. The best assurance is to design representative, inclusive, and adaptable institutional frameworks that are not reliant on particular charismatic individuals.

  1. Language matters

As Chin scholar Lian Sakhong has explained, the Chin delegation was at a disadvantage during the Panglong Conference because they did not have a translator who was familiar with their particular dialect. The British administrator who they were expecting to act as translator was recalled several weeks earlier (there is some debate as to whether he resigned or was fired). Additionally, even though the Shan and Kachin delegates were more familiar with the Burmese language, they were not very well versed in more advanced concepts in constitutional law or the kinds of political settlements that might result in the autonomy they hoped for.

Although political awareness and knowledge has definitely increased among non-Burman communities in the decades since independence, any future negotiations should take into consideration the fact that most non-Burmans will be participating in negotiations using a language that is often not their mother tongue. This is not meant to be a demeaning comment on their ability to speak Burmese, but simply a reminder that native language status can confer a more powerful bargaining position in negotiations like this; a critical element of negotiations will be the opportunity for non-Burman delegations to evaluate and fine tune the language of any agreements.

More importantly, national political discourse in Myanmar has not only taken place using the Burmese language, but also using predominantly Burman conceptions of politics. If discussions about the future political structure of Myanmar were to take into account, for example, the ways in which groups might have religiously or ethnically differing conceptions of “justice” or the ways in which non-Burman notions of community, family ties and mutual obligations are different from Burman understandings, it could have several positive effects.

First, it would help facilitate agreement on the intent of specific agreements (as mentioned above) by navigating through these different conceptual frameworks. Second, it could provide creative new avenues for political discussion, as non-Burman ideas and practices of politics would become a part of the national dialogue. And, finally, it would contribute to a feeling of inclusion in the state, where non-Burmans might see insights from their own political and social traditions valued as part of a broader national discourse.

  1. Inclusion matters

Although Myanmar school textbooks portray Panglong as the moment when all of the country’s ethnic groups came together to declare their intentions to join together in a union, the signatories to the agreement were only a few Burman, Shan, Kachin, and Chin leaders. The British required General Aung San to get agreement from the “Frontier Areas,” the administrative region of the country that comprised the border areas. While this area was occupied by more than just the Shan, Kachin, and Chin, other groups were excluded for a number of reasons, many of which have been explained by historians and analysts. Beyond the groups that were specifically excluded, many marginalized populations within the Burmans, Shan, Kachin, and Chin were not a part of the discussions.

The question of inclusion will be central for future political discussions. Who will be included? Who will have the authority to decide who is included? Inter-personal rivalries have often inhibited pan-ethnic solidarity and they have also had an influence on who has been included in recent peace talks and political discussions. How can we determine if certain groups are representative of the populations they claim to represent? Women’s groups, for example, have conducted important research and advocacy campaigns in conflict zones, in addition to providing basic support services for people in need. However, they have more often than not been excluded from the current peace talks and from most political negotiations between the Burman-led government and non-Burman groups; exclusion like this is absolutely unacceptable given the critical and constructive role of women in building peace in Myanmar and helping to create a more just society.

The initial Panglong Conference sought to bring together different ethnic groups and the assumption is that a future political settlement would also be along ethnic lines. This, however, will not be sufficient in dealing with the wide range of identities and identity conflicts that exist in present day Myanmar. Although it would certainly make the discussions more challenging and complex, the conversation needs to include marginalized populations beyond ethnic groups. These include religious minorities, sexual minorities, and under-represented socio-economic interests, just to name a few.

Additionally, are there marginalized Burman groups and perspectives that ought to be included beyond the government, the military, and maybe a few of the prominent democratic opposition groups? What about other identities that are not easily captured by the “ethnic” framework, such as Sino-Myanmar, Burmese of Indian descent, or the Rohingya? While some Burmese may find this suggestion unreasonable, Myanmar’s recent history of political exclusion has gone well beyond ethnic identity and a national effort that will contribute to peace and reconciliation must consider the dynamics of marginalization beyond ethnicity.

  1. Power dynamics matter

The general political climate at the time of the Panglong Conference was one in which it was clear that the British wished to negotiate a transition to independence as quickly as possible while minimally honoring obligations to their non-Burman allies. This meant that they were willing to work primarily with General Aung San, which gave him a much stronger bargaining position at the conference. Even on the non-Burman side, the negotiations at Panglong were complicated by the prominent role played by hereditary leaders such as the Shan saophas (sawbwas) and Kachin duwas, who enjoyed a high degree of traditional legitimacy.

Those concerned with the ways in which power dynamics can silence marginalized voices ought to be asking a number of questions regarding the organization of future political discussions. What will the structure of the meeting(s) be? Where will they take place? What will be the methods of discussion? Will they privilege men or older people, as is common in Myanmar society? Will they privilege those with Western education, fluency in English, or law and politics degrees? In essence, these questions boil down to one: who gets to assess what is and is not a valuable contribution to the discussion process?

While the discussion currently seems to revolve around degrees of political and economic autonomy for non-Burman states, how will minority groups be treated more generally? This refers not only to ethnic minorities in Burman divisions, but also to subnational dynamics, including ethnic minorities within individual states, such as the Shan or Burman populations living in Kachin State. Attention to power dynamics will also force participants to contend with an uncomfortable question: How much bargaining power do non-Burman groups really have in the current political situation?

While there is undoubtedly pressure on the government and the military to address the “ethnic” issue in Myanmar, international actors are putting equal, if not greater, pressure on non-Burman groups to seize the current opportunity and sign agreements, no matter how unsatisfactory they may be. Many non-Burman leaders at the first Panglong Conference underestimated the degree to which the British were eager to end their colonial involvement in Burma; current leaders cannot make the same mistake and international actors ought to be encouraging a process that pays attention to power inequalities and the demands of justice.

Power dynamics also matter in assessing where real decision-making authority lies. Can the government’s negotiating team make credible commitments on behalf of the Tatmadaw? Will the military agree to abide by the terms of a ceasefire and what is its promise worth, considering it has violated agreements in the past? Persistent fears about the degree to which the military is invested in the process of political negotiation also strengthen the hand of the government side. Government negotiators can present themselves as the “good guys,” attempting to blunt potential roadblocks from the military while also pressing non-Burman groups to give in and accept a one-sided “compromise.”

Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.

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