Mael Raynaud discusses the legacy of the Panglong Conference on Myanmar’s politics.
This post is part of our forum on the 21st Century Panglong. Read other posts in the forum here.
Before getting into any analysis of the current initiative bearing the name of “Panglong,” I think it is important to go back in time and see when the concept has been used, with what meanings, and by whom. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that for three decades at least, from the 1962 military coup that brought Ne Win to power until the early 1990s, very few people talked of Panglong any longer, at least not as the symbol of what anyone wanted to achieve politically in Burma (as the country was known during this period). To be sure, many ethnic armed groups referred to it as a means to show how the Burmans had betrayed the promise they had made in 1947, positioning themselves as righteous and good-willed, as opposed to Burmans who could not be trusted.
What really changed this was the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy movement, when thousands of Burmese students fled to the jungles of northern and eastern Burma, where the said ethnic armed groups were active. Within a matter of years, as the exiled community of activists developed, the so-called “Panglong Spirit” became a rallying concept under which members of both Burmese and ethnic NGOs and rebel groups could somewhat unite. This was the democracy movement that would gain international influence and raise awareness of the plight of the people of Burma, now officially known as Myanmar.
To the Burmans exiled in Thailand, the “Panglong Spirit” meant getting ethnic activists to work with them towards a democratic Burma (as they still called it), as opposed to fighting for their respective States’ formal independence, as they had for several decades. To the more moderate on the ethnic side (I am the one defining them as more moderate, here, but this is of course open for debate), the so-called “Panglong Spirit” was a way to remind their ethnic colleagues that, at one time, their leaders had agreed to share a country with the Burmans, even if it was under strict conditions. Crucially, it was also a way to remind Burman activists of the unwritten rules of the game. The ethnic armed groups had saved the Burmans’ lives when thousands of students were fleeing the Burmese government as it was hunting them after September 1988, and agreed to work with them, in large part because they thought pro-democracy activists could help in building a Burma where ethnic nationalities could live in peace and in respect of their right to “self-determination.”
In this process, two very important things happened. On the one hand, Burman activists got to better understand the ethnic point of view— the general prejudice non Burmans felt they were the victims of from the Buddhist-Burman majority, the reality of the violence perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, and the need for some sort of federalism. On the other hand, many ethnic armed groups and activists came to the conclusion that federalism, indeed, was a more realistic objective than outright independence.
So, federalism was the new, and common, political goal. Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD and its allies endorsed the concept from Yangon, after it was formally defined by a wide range of ethnic armed groups and political organisations in the 1997 Mae Tha Raw Hta Agreement.
In that sense, one must notice that even the Tatmadaw today seems to have accepted what was historically a demand made by the pro-democracy movement. But it has done so only after defining exactly what the political frame would be within which any kind of dialogue on the topic should take place: the 2008 Constitution.
This is where the Third Force, led by the late Dr Nay Win Maung and Myanmar Egress, comes into the picture, for several reasons. First, because they played a key role in helping the Myanmar Government in its effort to reform itself, from at least 2008 until the NLD’s coming to power just over 100 days ago, getting military men to accept the demands of other political players (especially the opposition) to a much greater extent. Second, obviously, because Myanmar Egress organised the first meetings of the current peace process, starting on November 19, 2011, with the historical first “verbal agreement” with the Karen National Union on January 12, 2012, the day before hundreds of political prisoners were freed. Third, Myanmar Egress worked very closely with political parties that participated in the 2010 elections, to the point that I will argue that the Yangon-based think tank played an important role in designing the political strategy that was adopted by the NLD in 2012, and that has led the party into Government. This strategy was simply to participate in the political process as offered by the Tatmadaw under the 2008 Constitution rather than reject it, as the NLD had initially done in early 2010. Last but not least, because many in the leadership and the staff of Myanmar Egress simply transferred into the Myanmar Peace Center, a semi-official agency funded by foreign donors and used by the Thein Sein Government to facilitate the peace process.
This is how we find ourselves today with what I would define as the pursuit of the “Panglong Spirit” within the frame of the 2008 Constitution.
There are only two real given facts as the country embarks on this project. One is that “Panglong” means less what was actually agreed on February 12, 1947, than a general call for the country to follow three golden rules: be Independent, Democratic, and Federal. The other is that the 2008 Constitution sets the limits to what can realistically be achieved for now.
Independence has been a fact of life since 1948. Democracy, even of the somewhat creative “discipline-flourishing” sort, is now a reality. “Federalism under the 2008 Constitution” is therefore the best way to describe the immediate goal, in so far as a new, better Constitution, or at least a revised Constitution, can materialize at some point in the future.
Any attempt to work outside of that (already fragile) frame would, I believe, be a terrible idea for either the NLD, the Tatmadaw, ethnic armed groups, political parties or civil society organizations.
Any attempt to make this “New Panglong” a one-time event is equally doomed to failure. If there is to be a Panglong inspired project, then it must be a process seen as having started with U Thein Sein in August 2011 and having no foreseeable end. This doesn’t mean that I would advise against an actual attempt at organizing such an event. Indeed, I would actually say the opposite: it’s fine to try and organize it, as long as all players are careful not to set anything in stone too early on, and give themselves enough room to manoeuvre as the process moves along. Again, all odds are that a one-time conference will fail to achieve any definitive goal, as a solitary event, but it may positively contribute to the long term process. Any process is punctuated by a series of events, and apparent immediate failures are not contradictory of long term success, provided they do not contribute to institutionalizing any specific point that could later prove to be problematic.
So, can there be “federalism under the 2008 Constitution”? My answer is yes.
When I first read the English version of the Constitution, a few months before the referendum of May 2008, I wrote the following email to colleagues along the Thai-Burma border: I noticed “the fact that a certain number of ideas groups here are working on are included. The local parliaments are really interesting. Of course, Land Rights, Education, Police, the Justice system and the likes all fall under the federal level, with not much given to the state and region level, which of course would be the basics of federalism. But the idea that the 7 “regions” (since the name changes) and the 7 states are equal to each other and that they all have parliaments, etc, is the closest Burma would have ever been to federalism, in a way. I find it a rather interesting move from the junta. In the future, this may have a positive impact, since the very concept of having one parliament for every state could be seen as a common ground for negotiations.”
While I would no longer completely stand for every word in this analysis of the Constitution, I do believe the overall point I tried to make is still valid: there is a much greater ground for building a federal system already embedded in the 2008 Constitution than most people think.
It is there, in following the strategy that has driven the NLD since 2012, making the best of a highly imperfect political frame and improving step by step, that the success of any Panglong inspired process lies, at least in the foreseeable future. Maybe one day this will put the country in a situation where all players agree that significant changes in the Constitution, or the writing of an entirely new Constitution, is desirable and acceptable.
Clearly on that day, doing away with the 25% military participation in the Parliament and putting the three remaining ministries not subject to democratic control under the supervision of the elected executive, and giving said executive a say over military budget and activities, will also be priorities. But in the meantime, the same logic must apply to the Panglong process as it does to the general political process: one would try and work outside the given frame only in vain, so the frame must be used as best as can be done.
What does that mean, practically?
It means continuing the peace process, first and foremost, and doing so with a much greater level of openness, honesty and good will than has been shown in the last 5 years. It means working towards reinforced powers and bigger budgets (which means a greater share of the taxes collected by the national government) for the 14 local parliaments. It means more local democracy as well, perhaps through creating a system of civilian and democratically elected administration running parallel to the General Administration Department (GAD). Indeed, many countries have a form of local administration run by the Ministry of Interior – Home Affairs in Myanmar- (such as the “prefecture” system in France).
It means a truly significant effort in promoting equality between people of various ethnic, religious and geographic backgrounds. It means allowing for greater political participation of ethnic political parties even when they fail to win on Election Day against an obviously very popular NLD. It means allowing for a greater participation of other players than simply armed groups and political parties, and that would mean civil society organisations, but also the private sector, one sector within the body politic that truly has a direct interest in peace and stability, not to mention some political leverage. In the education and health care systems, for instance, this means allowing for a greater space for non-governmental—and specifically “ethnic”—organisations, and probably new institutions under the control of local parliaments.
In addition to these, the Nation, and this is true beyond the peace process and the Panglong process, needs much more public debate on where exactly the people of Myanmar want to take their country. On this, as a foreigner, I have nothing to say. But it is clear that people everywhere in the country want a much greater say in what happens in the world around them. If Panglong is to be a process, it needs to be a very public process, one in which every citizen must feel they have a stake, and a voice.
Panglong is not so different from any other issue facing the country, then. Change will take time, it will come better if it comes within the comfort zone of all the stakeholders (yes, that means the Tatmadaw too), and it will come better and faster if everyone is allowed to participate in it.
Mael Raynaud is an independent political analyst who has been researching Myanmar politics and society since 2002.