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The 4th Asian Peace Conference: Siem Reap City, Cambodia
2 August 2017



Leadership and Unity Building in the Midst of Political Transition in Burma


Dr. Lian H. Sakhong



Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to speak at this auspicious occasion of the 4th Asian Peace Conference. And I would like to express my sincere thanks to the organizers at Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS), especially Emma and Nery and all other friends who are based here in Cambodia.


Before I touch upon “Leadership and Unity Building”, which is the topic you gave me for this morning, I would like to speak briefly about the current peace process in Burma. 


As you all know, we are currently engaged in a political dialogue and are negotiating for peace. Through this peace process and political dialogue, we are aiming to achieve – at least three objectives.


The first objective that we want to achieve through this peace process is very simple: we just want to end almost seventy years of civil war in Burma. We are suffering from one of the longest ethnic armed conflicts in modern time, and we want to end it.


One day in the future, Burma may be remembered and recorded in the history books as the country where the longest civil war in modern time was fought; we killed each other for seventy years; ruined the country's natural resources; destroyed all the human potentials, human skills and all creative minds and energy – and we damaged our own future, especially for our future generations to come. And after fighting for so long in this civil war; we are not proud of it and we want to stop it. We want to end this civil war. This is our first objective!


But to stop the fighting, we have to ask the question, WHY? Why was this civil war started in the first place? What is the root cause of this civil war? Why have all these ethnic groups in Burma, the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and all the other ethnic groups been holding arms and been fighting against the central government for so long? Please go and ask this simple question to all these ethnic leaders, “Why have you been holding arms and been fighting for so long?” I am sure they will all answer you like this, “We are holding arms in order to defend ourselves”. And they will also add, “We are holding arms as the last resort since there are no other means to solve our problems”. We hold arms because of the subsequent governments of the Union of Burma since independence, especially after the military coup in 1962, refused to solve the problems of our country through political means; they denied dialogue and they rejected negotiations. They opted, and are still opting, for military means by creating civil wars and engaging in armed conflicts and violence, suppressing the will of the people, and establishing a very strong military dictatorship. 


Therefore, under such circumstances, we ethnic groups have no choice but to defend ourselves by holding arms. I accuse the governments of the Union of Burma since independence, that they were the ones who initiated the civil war, not we ethnic groups in the country. (The situation, of course, is now changing, and I will come back to this.)


So... what we are saying is very simple: Stop fighting, stop killing, and stop the civil war!


We, ethnic groups, know that the armed struggle is not the answer for Burma. Our problem is not a military problem; and since this is not a military problem, you cannot solve the problem through military means. This problem is a political problem, and it can only be solved through political means. 

That is why we are opting for political dialogue on the table, not fighting on the battle field;

That is why we are demanding a negotiated settlement, but not a negotiated surrender;

That is why we are engaged in political dialogue and negotiating for peace with the government.


We want to end the civil war and we want to solve our country’s problem through political means; by getting engaged in political dialogue. And the purpose of being engaged in political dialogue is the re-building of the Union of Burma based on the principles of democracy and federalism that will guarantee human rights, equality before the law, internal self-determination for all member states of the Union, and the protection of minority groups. This is what we agreed on and signed in the document called the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which was signed by eight Ethnic Armed Organisations and the Government of Myanmar, on the 15th of October 2015.


So, let me repeat, our first objective is to end the civil war; and our second objective is to solve the political problem through political means, in order to re-build the Union of Burma based on the principles of Democracy and Federalism. In order to achieve this second objective, we are seriously engaged in political dialogue; and we are negotiating for peace with the government.


After the signing of the NCA in 2015, we designed how to get engaged in political dialogue and we adopted the Framework for Political Dialogue. Actually, the Framework for Political Dialogue is based on the NCA, through which we adopted the Seven Step Political Roadmap. These seven steps are: 

(1) The Signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement

(2) The adoption of the Framework for Political Dialogue

(3) Conducting the National level of Dialogue throughout the country

(4) Holding Union Peace Conference

(5) The Signing of the Union Accord

(6) Ratification of the Union Accord by the Parliament

(7) Implementation of the Union Accord


In the text of the NCA, we clearly mentioned that the Union Accord will be the basis for changing and amending all laws, including the Constitution, in the Union of Burma. What we are trying to say here is that after the signing of the Union Accord, we will be looking at and reviewing all the laws, including the Constitution which was adopted by the military government in 2008. If those laws are within the standard of the principles that we have adopted through the Union Accord, then we will continue to apply them. But if not, then we will change, we will amend, and we will even repeal those laws which do not comply with the principles of the Union Accord.


Here I would like to repeat again that our main objective is re-building the Union of Burma based on the principles of democracy and federalism, which are the principles already adopted by the founding fathers of the Union in 1947 at the Panglong Conference. The re-building of the Union of Burma is directly linked with our third objective, which is to preserve the Union as it was founded in 1947. For that reason, we cannot be accused of being separatists and secessionists. We are not for separation but for the Union as long as this Union upholds its original principles of democracy, equality, and self-determination through a federal arrangement.


But as we want to preserve and protect the Union, the Union also should preserve and protect our rights, recognize who we are and where we come from. It should also recognize our differences, as we come from different political backgrounds and history, we speak different languages, we cultivate different cultures, and embrace different religions and perpetuate different belief systems. So, please recognize Chin as a Chin, Karen as a Karen, Shan as a Shan, Rakhine as a Rakhine, etc.


This is a kind of unity that we want to see; a unity based on the recognition of our differences, and tolerance of the ones who are not the same as us. This is what we call “unity in diversity”. This is a kind of unity that General Aung San guaranteed us when we signed the Panglong Agreement in 1947. Unfortunately, it was not to be the case. Since independence, the subsequent governments of the Union of Burma practiced not “unity in diversity” but “unity in uniformity” in the name of nation-building. In this notion of “nation-building,” they practiced “one religion, one language, and one ethnicity”. 


So, in 1961, Prime Minister U Nu promulgated Buddhism as a state religion of Burma. And in 1966, Gen Ne Win adopted Myanmar-ska, the Bama language as the only official language of the country under the so-called “national language policy”, and in 1989 General Saw Maung changed our country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. 


The term Myanmar simply implies a people, a language, and one ethnic group in the country who blended their ethnicity with Buddhism from the first Kingdom of Myanmar was founded by King Anawrattha in 1044. Since then, they have a saying: Buhddabata Myanmar Lumyo, meaning to be a Myanmar is to be a Buddhist, and to be a Buddhist is to be a Myanmar. 


This was a kind of unity that they built up through the ages; though, unfortunately, the Myanmar Kingdom and Myanmar Lumyo from the 11 to the 19 century AD, until the British occupied their kingdom, has nothing to do with us. We were independent peoples ruled by our own chieftains based on our own traditional political systems. We joined the Union of Burma only in 1947 at the Panglong Conference.


As of today, a kind of unity that we want is, A unity in diversity, where you recognize me as a Chin, and you recognize my fellow Shan as a Shan, Karen as a Karen, and mutually respect our differences!


The problem of unity in diversity versus unity in uniformity leads me into the problem of political leadership in our country. Under the notion of unity in uniformity, we cannot hope for any kind of democratic leadership. The very notion of unity in uniformity implies the fact that you need a strong leader who is almost like a supernatural being possessing super natural powers; omniscient, omnipresent and knowing everything under the sun, even everyone’s personal life, and keep the country together under his strong hands.


In the name of holding the country together, or what they call the non-disintegration of the union and non-disintegration of national unity, they created this system of unity in uniformity. And our history tells us that what unity in uniformity can produce is a despotic dictator who rules with an iron fist tightly clenched around a bundle of forces of fear. This was the kind of leaders that we got in our country, and we all know what the result is of having such a leader; seventy years of civil war!


You all know that we are now in transition. This transition also brings us a new kind of leadership, and also some confusion. Under the 2008 Constitution, Who is the most powerful person in our country? The 2008 Constitution is cleverly designed so that the elected president, the Commander-in-chief, the speaker of the house and the main party leader are all equal, and no one can be above the other. But it was designed only for one particular group where the president is handpicked by an invisible leader; the Commander-in-chief is also picked up by the same supreme leader, and the speaker of the house and the party leader also are all the same: hand-picked! It was working very well under President Thein Sein's era, who of course won the election in 2010.


But when the NLD won an election in 2015, this arrangement was no longer working, and we are brought into all kinds of confusion. The NLD won the election but the party leader could not become the president. She is barred by the 2008 Constitution. So, what we got is merely a proxy president, and a party leader became the state counselor. Who is more powerful? Who is the most powerful guy in Burma? Obviously, not those guys who are elected, but the Commander-in-chief. According to the 2008 Constitution, the Commander-in-chief is not under the control of the elected government. Without the consent of the Commander-in-chief, the elected government can do almost nothing, especially in terms of their dealing with the peace process!


A lot of people have criticized the NLD for not doing enough, but I am afraid to say that those critics do not clearly see the power structure in our country under the 2008 Constitution. We have an elected government, but we do not have a genuine democratic system! We do engage in political dialogue and we are negotiating for peace with the government, but this government has two power holders. 


So, you can imagine what kind of leaders we have in our country, and what kind of confusion that they bring to us. Building unity; unity is a nice word, but we must also clarify what kind of unity it is we are talking about? Unity in uniformity is not only undesirable but even dangerous for any multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like Burma. And a leader who is a product of the system of unity in uniformity is even more dangerous. 


So, in conclusion, I would like to say that in a plural society like Burma, the kind of unity that we want is a unity in diversity; as we also want a leader who recognizes the diverse nature of our country, who respects our differences, and who understands and practices the value of a plural society and is able to build a unity in diversity.


Thank you!


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