When a Newly Independent Burma Thought It Had Found Peace

When a Newly Independent Burma Thought It Had Found Peace

Why you should care

Because our understanding of past peace talks can teach us to compromise.

A slim Burmese man dressed in a dapper double-breasted coat marched up to the front door of a British Empire on the verge of collapse. As he turned the corner onto Downing Street in London that day in January 1947, Gen. Aung San nodded politely to the waiting mass of civil servants outside No. 10, the residence of Prime Minister Clement Attlee, even smiling for one cameraman who leaned across to snap a photo.

Five years earlier, in the thick of World War II, Aung San was their enemy, a colonial renegade. But the two sides would soon join forces to repel a fading Imperial Japan. By July 1947, Aung San would be dead, assassinated in Rangoon’s council chamber. But his legacy as the founding father of Myanmar would be cemented by what he did upon leaving British shores.

If Burma gets one kyat, you will get one kyat.

Aung San

For Aung San, reaching Downing Street with a bargaining chip in hand was the culmination of years of astute maneuvering, both politically and militarily. Independence for his home nation was tantalizingly close. There was just one problem: Not everyone felt Aung San was a fair representative to speak on behalf of all of Burma.

“Up to that period, the colony known as Burma was administered in two different modes,” says U Khin Zaw Win, a Burmese intellectual and director of the Tampadipa Institute, which advocates policy and trains civil society in Myanmar. He believes Aung San was a fair spokesman for the central, ethnic Burman majority, organized under what was called “Ministerial Burma.” But Myanmar, Khin Zaw Win points out, has more than 135 separate ethnic groups, and around the edges, like in the ethnic Shan state to the east, hereditary rulers felt they were being sidelined in negotiations with the British. “There were also views from London that the non-Burmese ethnicities needed to be consulted on independence,” he adds.

Panglong conference

Aung San and Arthur Bottomley at the Panglong Conference.

Source Public Domain

According to U Harn Yawnghwe, the youngest son of a Shan leader who would eventually become the first president of independent Burma, this was no accident. “When [Aung San] went to meet with Attlee to get Attlee’s promise for independence, my father actually sent a telegram, saying ‘This guy doesn’t represent us,’ ” he explains, laughing at the audacity of his father, Sao Shwe Thaik. “That’s why the Aung San–Atlee agreement, if you look at it, says that [Aung San] has to get the other groups included as actors. That’s why he came to Panglong in ’47.” Named after the town nestled in the hills of the southern Shan state where its articles were inked on Feb. 12, 1947, the Panglong Agreement marked the historic acceptance of a unified country across ethnic lines.

Some 23 men, including Aung San, from four major ethnic groups signed a parchment promising unity. Guarantees were placed on autonomy and internal administrative powers, which eased ethnic minority worries in the so-called Frontier Areas. Aung San took it a step further and promised the men a degree of equality through a monetary metaphor: “If Burma gets one kyat, you will get one kyat.”

It was a historic achievement that laid the groundwork for a federal, independent country, says Harn Yawnghwe. But these days, he adds, the agreement is referred to with a deference that signals historical ignorance. “When people talk about Panglong, they talk about 1947,” he says. The problem? “They think that’s the first one, but it wasn’t, it was the second. The first was convened in 1946, between just the Shan, the Kachin and Chin,” referring to the three main ethnic groups involved in the meetings. Burmans were excluded from that first round.

Panglong conference2

Aung San signing the Panglong Agreement.

Source Public Domain

As Myanmar looks to the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Panglong Agreement, celebrated as Union Day every February 12th, a spotlight is once again placed on the intervening seven decades, which unfurled as tragedy, rather than triumph. With internecine power struggles resulting in Aung San’s assassination just five months after Panglong, instability led to a constitution that ignored a number of the guarantees for ethnic minorities. A sense of betrayal among the different groups eventually spiraled into conflict; today, Panglong mirrors almost seven decades’ worth of on-again, off-again conflict among the country’s ethnic minorities.

With peace talks properly underway once again following Myanmar’s first democratic elections in late 2014, history seems to be repeating itself with a poetic flair as Aung San’s daughter, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, heads the latest rounds of nationwide peace talks under the banner of the “21st Century Panglong.”

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