BANGKOK—The anniversary of the Feb. 12, 1947 Panglong Agreement is focusing some minds on the prospects of reform in Burma, days after the meeting of the new Parliament and the emergence of Thein Sein as the new President.
While the National Democratic Front (NDF) and other small, like-minded parties in Burma’s new government may try to discuss issues such as political prisoners and press freedom, it remains to be seen how far they will be able to push these measures.
With the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) dominant in the legislature—backed by a 25 percent bloc representation from the country’s army—it will be numerically impossible to pass any laws that the USDP and its allies do not agree with.
However the challenge facing Burma’s reform-minded parliamentarians is not just to try to get legislation passed, but to get motions discussed in Parliament in the first place. According to Moe Zaw Oo, from the National League for Democracy, the new parliament’s rules and procedures will make it difficult for opposition groups or anyone else to introduce any motions that might be anathema to the USDP, which won 76 percent of the vote in the November 7 elections last year. The USDP functions as the party front for the military junta, which is set to formally relinquish power in the coming weeks.
Irrespective of what transpires in the new Upper and Lower Houses, real power in the parliamentary system in Burma will lie with the president, who is not answerable to Parliament in any case. The new president, Thein Sein, will chair the new National Defence and Security Council, an 11-member committee that has been compared with the politburos of countries such as China and Vietnam.
It is not clear how the new structures will alter the existing relationship between the government and the country’s ethnic minorities, many of which have been at war with the Burmese army, off and on, since the country became independent from British rule in the late 1940s. Improving relations between the Burmese rulers and the ethnic groups is key to longterm peace and stability in Burma, says Kheunsai Jaiyen, who heads a news agency focusing on Burma’s largest ethnic minority, the Shan, which number around 6 million people.
“Today, unlike in the past, leaders from all the main ethnic parties agree with Aung San Suu Kyi that a new
Panglong deal is needed to pacify the country,” he said.
He added that Suu Kyi was the only figure capable of overcoming the historic distrust between the majority Burmans and the ethnic minorities that make up almost 40 percent of the country’s population and whose territories constitute around half of area of Burma.
“The main ethnic opposition parties followed Daw Suu’s lead in boycotting the election,” he said. “After their submissions to the National Convention that led to the 2008 Constitution and the new political system were completely ignored by the junta”.
Suu Kyi has called for a “21st Century Panglong Agreement,” along the lines of the 1947 deal between her father, Aung San, who emerged from World War II as the leading Burmese political figure, and representatives from some of Burma’s main ethnic minority groups.
However, Khin Maung, an Arakanese activist speaking as representative of one of the groups who did not participate in the original Panglong deal, said that the idea of federalism and decentralized power is anathema to the Burmese military, which took control of the country in 1962 after the 1961 Taunggyi Conference, which he described as “a Second Panglong.”
“Almost all the main ethnic groups were at Taunggyi,” he said. “But the federal principles that emerged surely alarmed the military and led to the coup the following year.”
Suu Kyi’s call for a 21st-century Panglong was criticized by the military government, and it remains to be seen if the NDF or others will or even can promote the concept in Parliament. The United States and some European countries have called for a loosely defined “national reconciliation” dialogue in Burma, as a prelude to any relaxing of sanctions on the Burmese rulers, and it is conceivable that the a Panglong-style process could play a major role in implementing such a dialogue.
However, the junta has taken a number of steps, dismissed by many as window-dressing, which could be used to undermine requests for any such reconciliation gathering. The appointment of a Shan vice-president, Sai Mauk Kham, and the creation of 14 regional legislatures means that the Burmese government can say it has worked to alleviate the concerns of ethnic minorities.
However, the ongoing stand-off between the Burmese army and the ethnic militias, who have been told to stand down and merge with the army, simmers on in the borderlands, with the Kachin Independence Organisation and the New Mon State Party labeled as “insurgents” by the government, signaling a deterioration of relations.
In the days after the Nov. 7 elections, armed clashes forced thousands of mainly ethnic Karen refugees into Thailand, and armed skirmishes and stand-offs have continued in border areas since then.
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