Lessons from Panglong (Part II)

Editor’s note: This is the second part of an article written by Tea Circle co-editor Matthew Walton and originally published in March 2014 at Asia Times Online. Part I can be found here. 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.

  1. Take your time

General Aung San understood that the British wanted to wash their hands of the situation in Burma after World War II and took advantage of that fact to push for immediate independence. Not only did this put pressure on the non-Burman groups to acquiesce quickly to an agreement, it also resulted in a rather undemocratic process. For example, given the small window of opportunity to get agreement from the Frontier Areas leaders to join the Union of Burma, Aung San’s political party, the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League), chose to work primarily with the hereditary leaders who enjoyed greater standing in the eyes of the British administration rather than more democratically-inclined allies such as the Shan State People’s Freedom League and the Kachin Youth League.

The current situation has many similar elements. While both the Myanmar government and many of the non-Burman political and armed groups have become more democratic over time, there are still many individuals and organizations within these communities that have been pushing for more transparency, inclusiveness, and democratic decision-making. However, with the pressure to get a “quick win” in the new government’s early days, it is likely that a slower, more consultative process will be passed over in favor of a settlement that wins the approval of international observers, but doesn’t effectively respond to the concerns non-Burmans have expressed over the years.

Additionally, the growing sentiment in the international community that there is a fast-closing window of opportunity for political negotiation puts greater pressure on non-Burman groups to come to the table, even when the offerings from the government side are less than ideal. This discourse (which is also reinforced by some members of non-Burman groups seeking to push for peace and a quick settlement) paints reluctant groups and individuals as “spoilers” who are inhibiting the chances for peace.

The spoiler discourse is dangerous, especially since the concerns raised by some of those who are now labeled as “spoilers” are the same concerns many non-Burmans have expressed consistently over the past few decades. The risk is that the pressure to come to an agreement quickly will result in a flawed settlement that legitimizes a hastily negotiated and non-representative agreement. Domestic and international groups who claim to be supporting “democratic development” in Myanmar need to recognize the potentially destructive effects of this pressure and to support instead a more thoughtful, inclusive process.

  1. Acknowledge the difficult history

The Panglong Conference took place only a few years after WWII had ended in Burma. This was a war that initially saw mostly Burmans allied with the Japanese fighting against mostly non-Burmans allied with the British. Near the end of the war, the Burmans abruptly switched sides, joining with the British-led Allies to drive the Japanese out of the country. The complexities of this conflict and the lingering hostilities went almost completely unexamined at Panglong.

No one discussed, for example, the atrocities committed by Burman and Karen troops against each other’s civilian populations (probably because the Karen weren’t officially a part of the Panglong negotiations, but there were other examples). No one raised the ways in which the pre-WWII nationalist movement was configured in part against non-Burmans as allies of the oppressive colonial authority, the flare-ups of violence directed at non-Burman and non-Buddhist populations in the 1930s, or the ways in which the British had used non-Burman troops to quell Burman rebellions. Panglong didn’t address the underlying tensions between the groups that were about to form an independent nation, and as a result there was no basis for sticking together once those tensions and grievances resurfaced.

Political discussions in the current period not only need to acknowledge the complex pre-independence history of opposition and mistrust, they also have to honestly engage with the subsequent decades of civil conflict and oppression experienced by the vast majority of Myanmar’s population. The trust-building that will be necessary to facilitate stability and growth cannot occur without recognition of this history. The most challenging element of this acknowledgement will be on the side of the Tatmadaw. Present and past military leaders are justifiably terrified of the possibility of one day being tried for war crimes or crimes against humanity (and it’s likely that some leaders of non-state armed groups would fall into this category as well) and there is a range of opinions inside and outside of Myanmar as to what justice might look like in this transitional context (tribunals, truth commissions, public apologies, etc.).

The frank truth of the matter is that the Tatmadaw still holds most of the cards; the military will likely resist any efforts at uncovering past or present abuses and the international community has so far shown no inclination towards concerted action that would bring this about. Perhaps the best place to begin is through all sides honestly engaging with a harsh and brutal history of exclusion and violence. Could the military be appealed to on the grounds of its own supposed dedication to the nation? Its current leaders have been using language that suggests they view their present incarnation as a different institution not to be judged by past actions, but this would definitely not be a sufficient response in a reconciliation process. Would more honest self-reflection on the part of the military (without the threat of punishment) be enough to satisfy its tens of millions of victims? There will likely be conflicting answers to these questions, but a crucial lesson from Panglong is that unacknowledged grievances will not stay hidden forever.

  1. Accept that there is no “Union Spirit” or “Panglong Spirit”

This is perhaps the most controversial of the lessons that emerge from Panglong. An examination of the accounts of the conference reveals that the Shan, Kachin, and Chin joined the Union for primarily economic and instrumental reasons. Most of these leaders remained skeptical of the degree to which they would actually be incorporated into the Union as equals (indeed, some were unsure whether they wanted this themselves).

It is even difficult to attribute to the AFPFL leaders the type of “Union Spirit” that is celebrated in Myanmar’s textbooks since the British required that they gain the agreement of the Frontier Areas in order to achieve independence. All of this suggests that there was no “Union Spirit” at the time of the Panglong Agreement. The waves of ideological, religious, and ethnic rebellions that occurred in the years following independence provide additional proof that Panglong did not succeed in creating that spirit.

While official versions of the history honor Panglong as an expression of “Union Spirit”, it must be acknowledged that the decades of civil conflict in Myanmar that followed independence represent strong evidence of the lack of this spirit in the country. Many groups never felt themselves to be a part of the Burmese nation after independence and have pointed to formal policies of discrimination as well as informal methods of exclusion from full membership in the national community.

Proclamations from the government and the military that insist not only on the foundational presence of “Union Spirit” but also on the duty of every citizen to cherish and safeguard it only further reinforce the view of many non-Burmans that the government does not take their concerns seriously. One way to recognize this fact would be for the government to acknowledge that “Union Spirit” is something that needs to be actively constructed through trust-building over a period of time. Without recognition of the present emptiness of “Union Spirit”, political settlements are unlikely to address the deep divides that inhibit national reconciliation.

Beyond Panglong

  1. Soldiers shouldn’t lead political negotiations

There are multiple modern examples of the negative long term effects of war fighters serving as the sole voices in both peace talks and subsequent political settlements. Their interests are primarily in military matters and beyond that in maintaining economic and political power and in some cases control over territory. Inclusive participatory negotiations are generally not first in the minds of those who have been engaged in prolonged armed conflict. This is not necessarily a criticism as much as an observation of the dynamics of peace talks led by fighters.

In Myanmar there is the further complication that virtually every armed group in the country has been involved in various atrocities, committed against each other in violation of laws of war, but more importantly against civilian populations. This means that every one of the armed groups involved in the peace talks has an incentive to avoid transparent and detailed engagement with questions related to war crimes and abuses committed against civilians.

If their voices are the only ones helping to create a peace settlement, they may very well close off opportunities for addressing critical questions of justice that would be a necessary component of reconciliation, both between and within different ethnic groups. Not only do groups and individuals with grievances against both the Tatmadaw and non-state armed groups need to be involved, these dynamics also highlight the importance of participation by Tatmadaw officers themselves as a way of acknowledging past wrongs and moving towards a common understanding of both national and human security concerns.

  1. “Equality” won’t correct years of institutionalized inequality

Decades of centralized control supported by military might has meant that, despite living in resource-rich areas of the country, most non-Burmans have not seen the benefits of economic development. In places where the government or military have not been able to monopolize resource extraction, other strongmen have stepped in to reap the rewards. There may be a strand of logic in the military argument that they have deployed their forces predominantly in non-Burman border states because those have been the regions with active armed rebellions, but whatever the motivation, the result has been persistent militarization and suffering for the populations of those regions. These factors, combined with a lack of educational or economic opportunities have made it more likely that people will remain in a cycle of poverty and marginalization.

Political settlements in these areas will have to acknowledge this fact and provide more than just guarantees of “equality” for non-Burmans in the country. While overt ethnic discrimination may be declining in Myanmar (and at present, seems to be more focused on religious minorities), a lasting peace could easily be hindered by an insufficient response to entrenched privilege and institutionalized inequality. To put it simply, populations that have suffered disproportionately over the past decades will need a more active, interventionist state to help level the playing field.

If Myanmar is to have a more inclusive state with something approaching equality of opportunity, it will require policies of affirmative action that explicitly give benefits to historically disadvantaged populations, including, but not limited to, those based on ethnicity. These policies might include more spending on education in non-Burman languages and in non-Burman areas more generally, reserved seats in universities and in the civil service, preferential hiring to ensure that development projects actually improve the livelihoods of local populations, or a national government body to assess and provide redress for civil rights violations.

Of course, these policies would also need to be adaptable, in order to respond to changing dynamics of opportunity and inequality. Developing these policies will primarily be the responsibility of the Myanmar government, but the international community can play a role in being sensitive to these dynamics in the distribution of aid and, more importantly, in investment in the country.


Myanmar’s leaders and citizens have many global models to draw on in facilitating national reconciliation, post-conflict transformation, and a gradual move towards federalism and increased regional autonomy. Yet an event like Panglong still retains a pull on the national imagination, as much for what it could represent as for what it actually was. Even though many groups have advocated for a “Second Panglong” that would move toward a political settlement of ethnic conflict, such a “conference” might still fall short of being an effective vehicle for creating harmony and stability in the country, even if it were more inclusive.

Instead of considering a single ”21st Century Panglong Conference,” Panglong Spirit could be recognized as something that needs to be continually and actively constructed. This would mean envisioning “Panglong” as more of an ongoing, institutionalized process than an event. It could consist of meetings at regular intervals and at various levels. Some of these meetings might be “safe” spaces where groups could air their grievances freely and others would simply be mutual teaching, where disparate groups learn about and learn to respect each other’s histories, customs, and aspirations. Some could bring together different groups to identify common experiences and goals as well as points of disagreement, while others would be designed to bring those grievances and suggestions directly to policy makers and implementers. The latter aspect is critical to ensuring that these conversations, while gradually building trust and identifying common interests, were also regularly engaging with government officials in a position to alter policy.

The “agenda” for each meeting might vary based on local circumstances, yet there might also be a national “coordinating” committee that would ensure that different identity groups are sufficiently represented and also that divergence of opinion within those groups is recognized and not suppressed. The participants themselves—and the various communities and identities that would be represented—would also change over time, as certain grievances and inequalities are addressed and others emerge. The discussions and conclusions of meetings could be disseminated in multiple languages, fostering greater national understanding of the challenges facing different communities, but also helping to hold the government accountable for actually channeling grievances from the meetings into concrete policy changes. These are only a few ideas, but we hope that the contributions to this Tea Circle forum will generate even more, especially those drawn from the experiences and insight of people from Myanmar.

A model like this could only work with acknowledgement from the Myanmar government that the “Panglong Spirit” is not something that ever really existed among the population nor (and this part is very important) something that will ever be fully realized. This is, in fact, the very reason why a single event would never be sufficient for developing a more inclusive political system. The nature of governments to view and categorize people in convenient ways and the tendency to see national identity as something primordial and given means that some individuals and groups will always find themselves outside of the national community.

Justice does not necessarily demand that every group be included, but it does demand that every grievance be considered. In the case of Myanmar, the lens of justice must be adaptable enough to look beyond ethnicity and other identity markers to recognize the repression of difference within and by groups that are themselves oppressed. By seeing the creation of the Panglong Spirit as something aspirational and continually in need of re-assessment, the people of Myanmar have a unique opportunity to acknowledge the country’s exclusionary past and to develop and institutionalize a system that would accommodate the changing nature of national identity, build trust between estranged groups, and create a more inclusive and just union.

Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, he was the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford and was a co-founder of Tea Circle. 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.