As the third session of the Union Peace Conference, also known as the 21st Century Panglong Conference, begins on 11 July, 2018, the Myanmar Government and military have the opportunity to revive the stalled peace process and move toward a broader, more substantive and inclusive peace process. However, recent events and the narrow list of topics to be discussed pose questions about the commitment of the Myanmar Government and military to a long-overdue federalism that genuinely guarantees equality and equity for ethnic nationalities. Disputes about statues of General Aung San, a late Burman nationalist hero and father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in non-Burman ethnic nationality regions, and Burman honorifics in front of ethnic peoples’ names, in addition to blocking proposals by ethnic organizations, suggests an attitude of superiority. This is manifest in policies of centralization wherein the dominant Burman culture and history is presumed to be the ‘national identity’ and imposed on ethnic nationalities without the chance for them to celebrate their own heroes or use their own language and customs. This domination and unequal treatment speaks volumes to the ethnic nationalities who have been fighting back against forced assimilation for decades, decreasing trust in the peace process in the face of continuing human rights abuses that their communities face.
The 21st Century Panglong Conference, and the related Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the Framework for Political Dialogue, promise “all-inclusive political dialogue” and “equality and self-determination” as core principles of the conference. However, as a recent report by the Karen Peace Support Network finds, “[Myanmar military] representatives continue to block federal proposals across all five sectors of political dialogue, including political, economic, social, land and natural resources, and security.” The report, which focuses on the issues of land and natural resources in the peace process, goes on to suggest that “powerful actors within the [Myanmar military] and Government are using the peace negotiation process to further legitimize the centralization of ownership, management and control over land and natural resources, undermining the broadly accepted goal of the process – the establishment of a democratic federal union.” In the meantime, recent warnings by the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Central Women’s Committee not to say anything negative about the military does not bode well for hopes that the NLD will push back against the military’s ongoing domination of the country’s politics.
In yet another instance of the military blocking ethnic proposals, the July 11-16 session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference will not include discussion of “ethnic rights,” as has been requested by NCA-signatory ethnic armed organization (EAO) representatives on the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), due to objections by the military. When justifying the exclusion of the topic, the military representatives on the UPDJC, which oversees the 21st Century Panglong Conferences, argued that the focus should be on “citizens’ rights” instead of “ethnic rights,” since ethnic nationalities are citizens. Due to the history of systematic discrimination and oppression, it is essential to have separate discussions of ethnic rights rather than to assume that the rights of ethnic nationalities can be adequately addressed through a broad discussion of the rights of all citizens. A discussion of citizens’ rights would once again privilege the majority Burmans’ experiences and needs and not recognize the different experiences and needs of ethnic nationalities. In fact, it is the Burman domination and forced assimilation of non-Burman ethnic nationalities that is the root cause of over 60 years of civil war in Myanmar that the 21st Century Panglong Conference needs to address and resolve.
While citizens’ rights is what the military is advocating for, the very meaning of citizenship has also been used to exclude and persecute other minorities such as the Rohingya, crimes against whom have prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to call for the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. In fact, the belief that ethnic minorities are less worthy of existence in Myanmar has led not only to denial of citizenship and atrocities committed against the Rohingya, but to similar atrocities against other ethnic populations during the decades-long civil war.
The imposition of a Burman-defined “national identity” without room for local diversity was exemplified in the recent arrest and charging of peaceful protesters in Karenni State. The protesters were objecting to the construction of a statue of General Aung San – the leader of the Burman independence movement and co-founder of the Burmese Independence Army – in a public park in Loikaw, the capital of Karenni State. Many local people in Loikaw objected to the construction of a statue of General Aung San without similar statues of Karenni and other ethnic nationality leaders. One participant in the protests stated, “[w]e believe that building the statue of Bogyoke [Aung San] … in our state without recognizing the images of the leaders we already have in the state amounts to an attempt to erase our history.” Similar attempts to build statues of General Aung San and name bridges after him, without consulting with local ethnic communities or taking into consideration other local leaders who should also be commemorated, has previously led to protests in other States.
During a peace talk in Mon State, a young Mon woman asked the State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to allow the use of Mon honorifics in front of the names of Mon people in official documents, instead of requiring the use of the Burman honorifics “Daw” for female or “U” for male. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi rejected that request, arguing that the use of “Daw” and “U” is polite, and that people who use Burman honorifics instead of the appropriate minority versions do not intend offense, therefore their use cannot be offensive. However, the insistence on “Daw” and “U” once again assumes that the Burman practices are the correct neutral, national practices, and formalizes the forced Burmanization of ethnic names. Instead of being polite, the refusal to listen to the voices of ethnic nationalities and respect how they wish to be recognized is not a productive way to ensure a union based on equality and mutual respect.
As peaceful protesters in Loikaw put it recently, instead of building statues of General Aung San, the Government should fulfill its promises. It is indeed time to return to the promises that General Aung San made to ethnic nationalities, including through the original Panglong Agreement. The July 2018 session of the 21st Century Panglong Conference could well be a chance to demonstrate respect for the original Panglong Agreement and respond to the needs and preferences of ethnic nationalities as they articulate them, based not on a ‘national identity’ rooted in Burman history and culture, but on the experiences of ethnic nationalities throughout history. To do this, the Myanmar Government and military must allow EAOs to hold meaningful national-level dialogues to engage with and hear from their communities without restrictions or fear of repressive laws such as the Unlawful Associations Act. The Government must also let go of the insistence on promoting the recognition of General Aung San at the exclusion of ethnic nationalities’ leaders, and must respect ethnic nationalities on their own terms, as equal citizens, seeing their histories and cultures as equal, not secondary, to Burman history and culture. By taking these small but concrete steps, they may begin to rebuild the trust that has been lost over decades of civil war and Burmanization, and build a genuine federal union based on equality, equity and self-determination.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Karen Peace Support Network
By Karen Peace Support Network
By Karen Peace Support Network
By Karen Peace Support Network
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”