Thein Sein Assures Federal System on Myanmar’s Union Day

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myanmar-union-day-feb-2014.jpg Soldiers march at the Union Day ceremony in Naypyidaw, Feb. 12, 2014.

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein said Wednesday that a federal system of government is the ultimate objective of his initiative to forge permanent peace with armed ethnic groups, citing a historic agreement that had guaranteed them political autonomy.

His assurance in a message marking Union Day, the anniversary of the Panglong Agreement struck in 1947, was immediately welcomed by ethnic leaders demanding that more power be devolved to their regions through a federal system.

“All national races are to establish national unity based on the ‘Panglong Spirit’ and then march toward a peaceful, modern, and democratic nation through a federal system,” Thein Sein’s message said.

It was read by Vice President Sai Mauk Kaum at a ceremony in Naypyidaw attended by thousands of ministers, military officers, and guests.

In it Thein Sein, whose government has been engaged in long-running peace talks with  ethnic rebel groups, also promised that the government was striving to strengthen national reconciliation “in cooperation with all people in the nation.”

Kachin clashes

The pledge was marred, however, by reports of fresh clashes this week between government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels in the country’s north, casting a shadow over ongoing talks to forge a nationwide cease-fire and hold political dialogue.

Government peace negotiators are scheduled to meet with ethnic rebel groups in Hpa-An, capital of eastern Myanmar’s Kayin (Karen) state in March, after several rounds of talks were already delayed.

Kachinland Media said Thursday that clashes had broken out near the rebel Kachin Independence Army’s headquarters at Laiza, near the Chinese border, on Monday.

Three Myanmar soldiers died in separate fighting in Shan State with the Kachin-backed Ta’ang National Liberation Army, it reported.

Nationwide cease-fire

The government has been eager to gather all the country’ ethnic rebel groups together to sign a nationwide cease-fire in Naypyidaw since July last year, but the plans have been postponed several times.

Most rebel groups have agreed to move forward with the nationwide cease-fire as long as it includes dialogue about political autonomy in a federal system.

But ethnic leaders told the Myanmar Times last week that the nationwide cease-fire is unlikely to be signed as anticipated in March, and could still be months away.

Ethnic rebel groups see the Panglong Agreement—in which Shan, Chin, and Kachin agreed to form a union with the rest of Myanmar under a guarantee of regional autonomy—as the promise of a federal system they have been waiting for decades.

Calls for greater autonomy

Rebel Karen National Union secretary Phado Kway Htoo Win said Thein Sein’s mention of a federal system—which had long been a taboo topic under the former military government—would bode well for the peace process.

“We have been afraid of using the word ‘federal’ because it makes people think we want to split off from the nation when they hear this word,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“But under President Thein Sein the government has promised to move toward a federal system. This is a good sign,” he said.  

Saw Than Myint of the Federal Union Party, a newly formed party comprising former members of 16 ethnic political parties from around the country, said ethnic people wanted a federal union so that they could elect their own regional leaders and have a say in natural resource development in their areas.

“We don’t have the opportunity to manage and govern or make our own laws … in our own states and regions. We can’t even manage our own natural resources,” he said.

Others said doubts remained about Thein Sein’s government’s commitment to discussing autonomy with ethnic rebels in political dialogue as part of the nationwide cease-fire.

“The ethnic peoples have always have been skeptical about what the government has said,” Mon Democracy Party chairman Naing Ngwe Thein said.

“Every ethnic group wants to have political dialogue, and we can't say when this is going to happen.”

NLD ceremony

Official ceremonies marking Union day were held in Naypyidaw, Yangon, Mandalay, and Myitkyina.

The main opposition National League for Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father General Aung San was a key architect of the Panglong Agreement, commemorated the day with a celebration at a restaurant in Yangon.

Aung San Suu Kyi said in a message read by another NLD member at the ceremony that the historic deal was not just an agreement made on paper, but also a promise “written on every citizen’s heart saying they believe in unity.”

Reported by Myint Oo, Nay Myo Tun, and Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.


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