Saturday, 25 February 2012

Message on The 59th Anniversary of Shan National Day

It is interesting to note that the linkage and emergence of the modern Shan State, its national day and the formation of the Union of Burma are so intertwined; it is almost impossible to discuss the making of this historical formation separately.
The date 7th February 1947 is a defining moment in the record of the Shan history as a modern nation. On that day, Shan princes and the people's representatives of the Shan States demonstrated their newfound unity to declare it a "national day" which were followed by the resolutions of "Shan National Anthem", "Shan National Flag" and the formation of "Shan State Council" on the 11th and 15th of February, 1947 respectively. These had been done without reference to the British colonial overlords, who claimed protector ship over the Federated Shan States since 1886-87 (one year after the fall of the Burman kingdom and the Alaungpaya or Gonbaung dynasty).

The formation of the Shan State Council by Shan leaders autonomously of the British represents a declaration by the Shan that they are a sovereign, free nation. This bold action constitutes a Shan declaration of independence from foreign rule, and the date, 7th February 1947, marks the entry of the Shan people onto the world's historical stage as a modern nation.

The people of Shan States and leaders decided in this very year later at Panglong, on the 12th of February, to join with U Aung San and the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League) and leaders of other nationalities, to live together under one flag as co-independent and equal nations. This marks the birth of a nation-state now known as "Union of Burma".

It is not an exaggeration to state that without Panglong Agreement or Accord, signifying the intent and willingness of the free peoples and nations of what could be termed British Indochina, there would have not been born the Union of Burma in 1948.

Failed Cohabitation

As all know, the experiment to live together in harmony within the Union of Burma has been a disaster. In 1962, the Burmese military sized state power in a coup and declared the Union Constitution abolished. In so doing, the Burmese terminated the only existing legal bond between them and the other ethnic nationalities. The declaration of the suspension of the Constitution was in effect a self-denunciation that Burma had overnight become an aggressor-nation instead of partner.

Since then, Shan State has been treated as a de facto colony and occupied territory by the Burmese army.  Its forced assimilation and Burmanization policies to subdue our national identity have devastated the Shan homeland and make the people homeless and refugees. Looking at the contemporary situation, one could only term the Shan nation as a downtrodden and battered one, reeling under the occupation of the oppressive Burmese military regime. Gross human rights violations, genocide and cultural genocide, population transfer designed to make the Shan a minority in their homestead, and robbing them of their birthright sovereignty and self-determination are glaring injustice, which push the Shan into the category of sub-human or slaves, especially in the eyes of their occupiers.

The same situation also applies to the Karenni, Karen, Mon, Arakan, Chin and Kachin States.

But even under such circumstances and after more than four decades of brutal suppression and occupation, the Shan sense of "national identity" and the aspiration to be the master of their own faith have not diminish but have grown stronger. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy's (SNLD) victory in 1990 nation-wide election in the whole Shan State; the continued political activities of the Shan State Army North within the limited political space provided by the Burmese military junta; the active armed resistance of the Shan State Army South, together with the bulk of Shan State National Army; and the highly self-conscious Shan civil societies in keeping the national identity alive under intense pressure of the Burmese military junta; are indications of a nation, which refuses to be cowed.

Given such a backdrop, it is not at all surprising that the majority of the Shan people wants to opt out of the now-defunct union for good. The question also arises as to why the mainstream Shan organizations are endorsing the notion to rebuild a new Federal Union - together with all the other ethnic nationalities, Burman included - instead of an outright total independence and clean sweep secession.

There are two essential, important factors, which need emphasizing regarding this issue, at least from the mainstream organizations and Shan leadership point of view. One is the ever changing global perspective in relation to the issue of self-determination and the other, the constant transformation of needs and value system or aspiration of a people at a given time and space.

Changing Global Perspective

In 1945, the United Nations member states count was 41 and by 2002, it has reached 191. Up till 1990, most emerging new states, with a few exceptions like Bangladesh and Singapore, are the product of decolonization program of the United Nations based on the so-called salt-water doctrine. However, the break-up of Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the early 90s has added up some 19 more new states, which raises hope that the disintegration of the existing states will continue. But this expectation was short-lived and with the end of the cold war, the pro-status quo stance gained acceptance again and the disintegration of existing states subsided. During the period of 2000 to 2006, only one new state emerged, which was a mixture of decolonization trend as prescribed by the United Nations and liberation movement or disintegration of an existing state from the point of view of the Indonesian government.

The global trend seems to be moving towards integration than disintegration, as can be seen by the expansion of European Union, now numbering 25 states. At the same time, the international community's wariness of having to deal with failed states, such as Somalia and Democratic Republic of the Congo, have prompted to reject disintegration and push for more integration.

If one looks around the conflict spectrum in Asia-Pacific region, most opposition movements against the existing states have toned down their secessionist tendency and are now accommodating autonomy solution or federal system arrangement, rather than secession. The Tamil Tiger of Sri Lanka and the GAM of Ache/Indonesia are good examples, which have grasped the changing international mood in relation to their aspiration of self-determination.

Christian Hillgruber, in his " The Admission of New States to the International Community " writes:

The integration of a new state in the international community does not take place automatically, but through co-optation; that is, by individual and collective recognition on the part of the already existing states. By the procedure of recognition, these states exercise their prerogative to determine in advance whether the newcomer, in their judgment, is able and willing to carry out all its obligations as a subject of international law, whether it will be a reliable member of the international community.

Shan State is situated between China and Thailand and also shares thousands of kilometers borderline with both states and couldn't expect recognition easily, even if the Shan could throw out the Burmese occupation forces, for both countries view the conflict as an internal one. Furthermore, while China has adopted an Anti-Secession Law on 14 March 2005, Thailand is bound by it commitment in ASEAN to view Burma as a sole political entity and fellow member of the bloc, not to mention the principle of non-intervention and territorial integrity, which are cornerstones of the organization.

Transformation of Needs and Value System

According to the unpublicized survey conducted by the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), the majority of the Shan people would opt for total independence, if given the chance to choose. It is also not surprising that the people would prefer secession, under such immense rights violations and oppression by the Burmese occupation forces. It couldn't be otherwise.

Again, it boils down to the point if the people's desire could be achieved in the foreseeable future, given the unfavorable international mood on such goal setting. Practically, the Shan are faced with a dilemma to choose between secession and genuine federalism. But it is also important to note that the Federal Proposal of 1961, before the military coup, is the brainchild of the Shan leadership at that time, which was aimed at changing the Burman dominated unitary system into a genuine federal structure with equal status for all ethnic nationalities. All non-Burman ethnic groups endorse this as a balanced and acceptable solution until today. Meanwhile, this proposed arrangement also find acceptance among most of the Burman opposition camps as a way to resolve the conflict as a whole.

In this connection, it is also important to look at the ever-changing needs and value of the concerned population at a given space and time. The Kurdish people's participation in the recent Iraq federal setup, the undecided faith of the Albanian people in Kosova, the conflict management in Ache/Indonesia, and the ongoing talks between the government of India and Naga people indicated that they are ready to cut a deal less than the originally aimed goal of secession or total independence. This is perhaps lowering the aspiration to a certain degree but nevertheless, a pragmatic approach and in line with the international mood. But this is not to say that the global trend will stay forever in favor of status quo. The people concerned would eventually adjust their needs and value system, according to the prevailing international norm and structure of the time.

Pragmatic Approach

Finally, if the Shan wants to be heard and advance their aspirations, they would need to seriously think globally and act locally. It would need to sell the idea that it is part and parcel of a viable force, in collaboration with all non-Burman ethnic nationalities and Burman opposition groups, to replace the illegitimate military junta. To do this, "broad coalition-building" among all the opposition is essential, even those within the rank of the enemies, who are ready to reform, embrace justice, equality and democracy should not be neglected.

The Shan cannot win this fight alone and it is crucial that the “multi-pronged” approach is employed, coupled with the motto of "diverse actions, common goal”, as urged time and again by the late Chao Tzang Ywanghwe.

Monday, 6 February 2012

7 February: The gateway to 12 February

You may call it Shan National Day, as it used to be known, since the first Shan National Day was officially designated in 1930 in Taunggyi and later in 1947 at Panglong.
Or, if you think the name, by its name, leaves out indigenous non-Shans in what used to be known as Federated Shan States, you can adopt the new designation: Shan State Day.
As far as I’m concerned, any name will do, as long as the day’s historic significance is not forgotten, just as a rose’s signature fragrance is recognized. In each and everything, man should value its substance more than its label.
So what happened on 7 February 1947 that had called for a decision to commemorate it each year? A short recap will be needed here:
Aung San had just concluded an agreement in London, which promised Independence for Burma within one year. But he needed to ask the non-Burman Frontier peoples whether they would like to join Burma in Independence or if they would rather go it alone.
Many people at that time thought that the Frontier peoples, having little trust in the Burmans, would rather choose to stay under the grudging rule of the post-war British Labor Party government.
But, unknown to most people, Shan, Kachin and Chin representatives, who were jointly holding the Panglong Conference, had already reached agreement that the freedom of their respective people “would be achieved sooner through the cooperation with the Burmese.”
The only problem appeared to be with the Shans, who were still hoping that their newly formed Shan States Saophas Council (later Shan States Council), made up of equal number of the 33 ruling princes and 33 people’s representatives, would be recognized by the British government. Had the British accepted the demand, it was well nigh certain Aung San, who arrived on 8 February, would have to return empty-handed.
There wouldn’t have been a Panglong Agreement to sign and subsequently a Union Day to celebrate.
But, luckily for the Burmese, and unluckily for the Shans, Chins, Kachins and the rest (as some would indeed say) the British turned down the Shans’ call.
The result was the mass meeting held in the evening of 7 February, when the 14 men (7 princes and 7 people’s representatives) Executive Committee of the Shan States Council was declared, which marked the parting of the ways with the British.
This had paved the way for the successful negotiations with Aung San and the Panglong Agreement on 12 February.
Now, 65 years after, many Frontier peoples, especially the Shans, are wondering whether they had made a hasty decision in spurning the British suggestion to place the question of the reorganization of the Federal Council on the agenda of the Council meeting to be held in Taunggyi later in the month. (The Federal Council of Shan States was then presided by the British Commissioner.)
Most probably, it was the wrong decision for the Shans. But, on the other hand, it was also most probably the right decision for the Burmans who had automatically succeeded the the British to govern the Frontier Areas.
Therefore, if I were, say, the President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar now, I would not have hesitated to allow these Shans to celebrate every time 7 February returns with a vengeance. By all accounts, they should be mourning instead. But if they are still punch-drunk enough to choose to be hilarious about it, so be it.
After all’s said and done, it’s all for the best. Or don’t you think so?

“Tai/Shan National Day” or “Tai/Shan State Day”?

One problem facing Shans each year when 7 February draws near is whether the day marking the unity between ruling princes and their people against British suzereignty should be called “Shan National Day” as it used to be or “Shan State Day” as renamed by the military junta that came into power in a bloody coup in 1962.

Those in favor of the former name say we should stick to the historical label
Those against it say “Shan National” only means the day is only for Shans and not for non-Shans who together constitute 50% of the population, according to the pre-Independence census; as such “Shan State Day” is preferable to the historical name

So why did they agree to call it “Shan National Day” in the first place, when, out of the then 33 princely non-Shan princes and two of the leading non-Shan princes (Tawngpeng and Hsihseng) were highly educated and well-informed?

The answer lies in both the ambiguity of the term “Nation” and how rulers and people understand the word, then and now. 

When you look into the dictionary, two simple distinct meanings are found:
All the people in a country
A tribe or race 

At the time when the word “Shan National Day” was coined, it was quite obvious most of the ruling princes thought it applied to all the people in Shan State, then known as Federated Shan States. I remember when I was a kid, people, both Shan and non-Shan, joined together to observe the annually held event.

However, as I grew older, the interpretation began to change. People started saying, “Shan National Day means it is only for Shans, and not us (PaO, Palaung, Wa, Lahu, etc). We should call it Shan State Day, so that all of us are included.” 

All those complainants then and now, appear to be unaware that the decision to name the day as “Shan National Day” in 1947 was signed by none other than Hkun Pan Sing, President of the Shan States Council and Palaung prince to boot. 

By 1963, a year after the coup, it became clear unless it was called Shan State Day, one was certain to risk being called a rebel or a separatist. Among the resistance ranks, the situation was almost exactly the reverse. One could risk being accused as a junta follower by calling it Shan State Day.

To placate both camps, some have begun to call it “Shan State National Day” which in effect pleases few people.

One of my late uncles explained to me why the term National Day was opposed by the junta. “For many countries, a national day means the day you either declare independence or were granted independence,” he said. “The generals simply don’t want youths like you to get ideas about it.”

He may be right. I’m sure he was.

However, unless a new Shan State Council takes the matter into its hand and reaches a new resolution, I’m afraid we will still be arguing among ourselves how we should properly call the day, every time 7 February is in the offing. 

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Yawnghwe palace designated as Buddhist Museum

The Yawnghwe historical museum, previously the palace of Yawnghwe, has been designated as a Buddhist museum by the Burmese military, according to reliable sources.

The palace has been converted into a historical museum, housing some of the most precious artifacts of the Shan princedom since 1369.

Yawnghwe palace
In May 2008, all displayed antiques such as Saofah’s regalia (royal garments worn by Shan princes), lacquer wares, ancient armaments, and two imperial thrones were already moved and replaced with the Buddha images, said a local resident.

“I don’t know where the things were moved. I just saw only the Buddha images are being displayed now,” he said. The age and origin of these Buddha images is also unknown, but it is unlikely that they have the same historical and cultural importance as the previous artifacts of the Yawnghwe historical museum.

However, some locals are saying that the Shan artifacts were reportedly moved to Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital of the Burma.

The report will be updated as soon as more information arrives.

Yawnghwe is one of the oldest principalities of the Shan State. Its last ruling prince was Sao Shwe Thaike, who became the first president of the independent Union of Burma. His consort was Sao Nang Hearng Hkam, the founder of the Shan State Army (SSA).

A similar story has taken palce in northern Shan State with the palace of Sao Kya Seng, Prince of Hsipaw and his consort Sao Nang Inge who wrote Twilight of Burma. This historical building has been closed, according to sources.