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Politics in the Shan State: The Question of Secession from the Union of Burma


The fourth of January 1958 was significant in Burma for two reasons; it marked the tenth anniversary of the nation's independence and it also denoted the end of the constitutional limitation on the right of a state to secede from the Union. While the anniversary of independence caused rejoicing throughout the country, the right of secession caused many of the leaders to worry and wonder whether or not this date would become significant as the beginning of the breakup of the Union. Since the right of secession is a unique right, not found in any other modern federal constitution save that of the U.S.S.R., it is useful to examine the background and the contemporary situation in order to see what opportunities there are for a state to secede from the Union of Burma, and what limitations exist to keep it from exercising its right.

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1 This article is an enlarged version of a paper which was read on April 3, 1958, at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in New York City.

2 Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as amended and added to at the Fifth Session of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., Fourth Convocation; Art. 17, “The right freely to secede from the U.S.S.R. is reserved to every Union Republic.”

3 The Kayah State originally was named the Karenni State at the inception of the Union of Burma in 1948. Its name was changed in 1951 in the Constitution Amendment Act, 1951 [Act No. LXII], Section 8.

4 In the original Constitution, the Karen State was provided for. (Ch. IX, Part III.) Under the Amendment Act LXII, 1951, which brought the Karen State into being, the provision in regard to the territory was amended. Power was finally transferred to the Karen State on June 1, 1954.

5 The Special Division of the Chins is different from the other states of the Union in that there is no Head of State; the Council has no legislative powers and the Minister for Chin Affairs is in charge of Chin General Administration. (See Ch. IX, Part V of the Constitution.)

6 These estimates were made by the Secretary of the Shan State Ministry, U Saw Tha, during a personal interview with the writer on April 10, 1956.

7 One of the best histories of the peoples of the Shan State is Scott J. C. and Hardiman J. P., Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States (Rangoon, 1900), I, I, 187330; a useful short summary of early Shan State history and the relations between the Shans and the Burmans may be found in The Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry, 1947, 1, Report (Rangoon, 1947) [hereafter FACOE].

8 Hall D.G.E., Burma (London, 1950), pp. 2833; Harvey G., History of Burma (London, 1925), pp. 1315. 71–127.

9 Sir C. Crosthwaite, Pacification of Burma (London, 1912), is still the best account of the early relations between the British and the frontier peoples. Also see C. Hendershot, “The Conquest, Pacification and Administration of the Shan States, 1886–97,” unpubl. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1936.

10 Crosthwaite, pp. 161–162. Prior to independence, the present Shan State was divided into numerous feudatory states. In this essay the area will be referred to as the Shan States when the narrative describes the situation prior to independence in 1948. The term the Shan State will be used in discussing post-independence developments.

11 Statement of Sir Frederic Fryer, First Lt. Governor of Burma, at a durbar for Shan chiefs in Taung-gyi, Headquarters of the Southern Shan States, May 7, 1895. As quoted in Ireland A., The Province of Burma (Boston, 1907), II, 766770.

12 Ireland, p. 769.

13 Christian J. L., Burma and the Japanese Invaders (Bombay, 1945), pp. 324325.

14 The best source of information on the war period is contained in the two-volume intelligence report of the Government of Burma, Burma during the Japanese Occupation (Simla, 1943–44). Although much of the material in the reports is unconfirmed, enough is verified so that it provides a reliable guide to events in Burma and the frontier areas at a time when the country was closed to normal means of gathering data and reporting.

15 Burma during the Japanese Occupation, I, 14.

16 A copy of the treaty is found in Burma during the Japanese Occupation, I, 28.

17 Burma during the Japanese Occupation, II, 78–83. This short chapter about the Shan States is an excellent report about the impact of the war on the area. It was probably written by W. W. Payton, ICS, and the present writer had occasion to verify some of Payton's conclusions while in Burma in 1955–56.

18 See Aung San-Attlee Agreement, January 27, 1947, Article 8; an authentic copy will be found in Ministry of Information, Burma's Fight for Freedom (Rangoon, 1948), p. 45.

19 See Panglong Agreement, Feb. 1947; originally published in FACOE, I, 16–17.

20 Sao Shwe Thaik, Sawbwa (chief) of Yaunghwe, replaced Thakin Nu as President of die Constituent Assembly on July 30, 1947. During the third session of the Assembly, September 15–24, 1947, he was appointed provisional President of the Union of Burma by the members of the Assembly.

21 For a good discussion of these agreements and concessions, see Cady J. F., A History of Modern Burma (Ithaca, 1958), pp. 544551.

22 FACOE, II, 3–43.

23 Constitution, Ch. II, Art. 10.

24 Constitution, Third Schedule, List II; the topics which the states are eligible to legislate are arranged under eight headings: Constitutional affairs, the writing of a state constitution, the establishment and maintenance of a state civil service; Economic affairs, agriculture, fishing, land, markets, taxes on local and imported goods, employment, amusement, and gambling; Security, police and judicial; Communications, roads, municipal tramways, roadways, inland water traffic; Education, schools, libraries, and theaters; Public health, hospitals, vital statistics, cemeteries; Local Government; General. The Union Legislative powers are itemized in the same schedule under List I. If any subject arises which is not clearly included in either established list, the power goes to the Union and not to the states.

25 Constitution, Ch. VI, Art 92.1.

26 In the period prior to World War II, the Shan States were self-supporting. The Federal Fund, created in 1922, included contributions from the chiefs, which before that date went as tribute to the British. It also included funds from the Burma Government—a share of receipts on common subjects such as excise, customs, etc., and receipts from minerals and forests. After 1937, the Government of Burma no longer had to supplement the Fund to make up for a deficit; instead it paid the Federated Shan States an exact portion of the taxes raised on commercial activity in their territories, which were sufficient to allow the Fund to develop a surplus. See FACOE, I, 14. The war, the changes in living patterns o£ the people, the increased services offered by the state, and the attempt to underwrite economic development, all contributed to the Shan State's postwar need for financial aid from the Union Government. In answer to a question on state finances, U Saw Tha, Secretary for the Shan State, replied, “A major portion of the funds required for the administration of the Shan State is given by the Union Government... revenue listed in the State Revenue List... forms a minor portion of the funds required.”

27 Taunggyi, Loilem, Lashio, Loimwe, and Hopang.

28 FACOE, I, 28–29.

29 Constitution, Ch. X.

30 For general background on Shan State politics, see the various series of articles on the subject in The Nation (Rangoon), Aug.-Oct. 1955, and occasionally in 1956–57. The Nation has kept its readers informed on the actual happenings and the rumors connected with Shan State politics.

31 Burma Weekly Bulletin, New Series, II, 33 (Nov. 18, 1953), p. 258. The Bulletin is the official information sheet published by the Union of Burma Ministry of Information.

32 The Nation, Nov. 30, 1952, p. 1. The proclamation came into effect on Dec. 11, 1952, and was valid for six months or less.

33 One of the best accounts of the war period relations between the two communities is found in Morrison I., Grandfather Longlegs (London, 1947); see also Cady, pp. 442–444.

34 No complete story of the Karen insurrection has been written yet. Because the issues are complex and all the evidence is not in the public domain, one must use the reports and accounts with some caution. The Burmese newspapers are useful, but they tend to be biased against the Karens. The best accounts of the insurrections generally are to be found in Ministry of Information, Burma and the Insurrections (Rangoon, 1949); Tinker H., The Union of Burma (London, 1957), pp. 3462, 257–258, 351–352; Cady, pp. 549–550, 589–593.

35 Burma and the Insurrections, p. 14.

36 The best sources on the activities of the Chinese in Burma are found in Ministry of Information, Kuomintang Aggression Against Burma (Rangoon, 1953); Maung Maung, Grim War Against the KMT (Rangoon, 1953); Tinker, pp. 50–55, 345–348, 367–368; Cady, pp. 621–622.

37 Tinker, p. 52.

38 The Nation, editorial, March 9, 1954, p. 4; Burma Weekly Bulletin, III, 7, May 20, 1953, p. 51; Ministry of Information, “The Shan State in 1953,” Burma, IV, 3, April 1954, p. 3.

39 The Nation, Aug. 8, 1954, p. 1.

40 Burma Weekjy Bulletin, II, 43 (Jan. 28, 1953), p. 2.

41 The revenues of the chiefs were as follows: in Kengtung, North Hsenwi, South Hsenwi, Yawnghwe, Hsipaw, Tawngpeng, and Mongmit, the chiefs were allowed to keep 15% of the total revenues collected; in all other states, 25%. These allowances were established by the British in 1922. In addition the chiefs earned added income from leasing the gambling rights in their states and other activity which has never been reported in detail, but which lay outside the jurisdiction of the British first and the Union of Burma later.

42 The Nation, Feb. 19, 1957; July 2, 1957.

43 The Nation, Dec. 29, 1956.

44 The Nation, Sept. 14, 1956.

45 According to Andre Vyshinsky, The Law of the Soviet State (New York, 1948), pp. 272–273, in order for an autonomous republic to be elevated to a Union Republic and enjoy the right of secession, it must meet three conditions: (1) it must “be a border land, not encircled on all sides by U.S.S.R. territory”; (2) “it is necessary that the nationality which gave the Soviet Republic its name represent therein a more or less compact majority”; (3) it must have a population of at least one million. Vyshinsky drew upon Stalin's “Report on the Draft of the U.S.S.R. Constitution” for this section.

46 Constitution, Ch. X, Art. 204.

47 See Comprehensive Report, Economic and Engineering Development of Burma, prepared by Knap-pen, Tippetts, Abbett and McCarthy Engineers, I, i, 3–18.

48 The territory known as Kokang was ceded to British Burma by the Chinese in pursuance of the Peking Convention of 1897. During the hearings of the Frontier Areas Enquiry Commission in 1947, two representatives attended and gave evidence on April 11, 1947. The son of the hereditary chief or Myosa reported that out of the state's population of 40,804, 33,474 were Chinese. Both representatives indicated that if their state did not get internal autonomy it would join with any other nation which would give it o t them. See FACOE, II, 314. After Independence in 1948, a Burma Citizenship Enquiry Commission classified the Chinese of Kokang as citizens of Burma. Since most of them do not speak Shan or Burmese, they have been mistaken for illegal Chinese immigrants. They have complained that they have no identification from the Union to prove their citizenship and protect them from harassment by border officials. See The Nation, December 6, 1954, for the case of Hoo Kya Chin, which demonstrates this point.

49 Reported in full in The Nation, May 8, 1957, p. 1.

50 The Nation, July 2, 1957, p. 4, in a letter to the editor.

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