Developments in the Shan States have recently brought the question of secession from the Union by the constituent units into public discussion. It would not be far wrong to say that many people view such developments with considerable alarm, and indeed certain quarters have applied the term ‘disloyal’ to those who have been speaking of secession. These quarters have gone so far as to state that secessionist activities ‘amount’ to a betrayal of the Union itself.
Nonetheless, the right to secede from the Union does undoubtedly exist in the constitution. As the Sawbwa of Hsipaw pointed out in the ‘Nation’ a few months ago, Chapter X, Section 201 specifies that ‘every state shall have the right to secede from the Union in accordance with the provisions hereinafter provided’ The Sawbwa asserted on the basis of this section that it was the absolute right of the Shan States to pull out of the Union if she wishes.
Confronted with this provision, relating to secession in the constitution, the Unionist may feel that its inclusion was unfortunate, and a mistake on the part of the framers of the constitution. An examination of the United States constitution shows that it is silent about the right of secession. The American Civil War (1861-65) had the effect of abrogating any such right which-it could be deemed-was implicit in that constitution. Lord Bryce, in his study of the American Commonwealth tells us: “It was felt so strongly that the precedent of the victory by the North would discourage attempts in future to secede from the Union that it has not even been thought worthwhile to add to the constitution an amendment negating the right to secede”.
In 1947, a Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry (FACE) was set up under the Aung San-Attlee Agreement to enquire into the best method of associating the Frontier peoples with the working out of a new constitution for Burma. When we look at the report of this committee, we find the committee also went into the question of the form of the future state. But although a majority of the witnesses who gave evidence before it asked for the right of secession by the states from the proposed federal union at any time, the committee was doubtful of the wisdom of including this right. It observed, “Few federal constitutions contain provision for the secession of states. It seems to us that if any such right is to be contained in the federal constitution for Burma, it will have to be carefully limited and regulated.”
Why then did this provision for secession have to be in the constitution?
The answer lies partly in the desire on the part of the national minorities to have a safeguard for the autonomy they were to have under the new constitution, and partly in the influence of the political principle of national self-determination which at the end of World War One, played a cardinal role in reorganizing the map of Europe, particularly in its interpretation in Marxist-Leninist doctrine whereby it is defined as the right to secession.
Before the advent of the British, the frontier areas of Burma were under the suzerainty of the Burmese kings but it was traditional Burmese policy not to interfere with the customs and traditions or with the internal administration of their feudatory states. In 1885, with the annexation of Upper Burma, the Burmese monarchy was destroyed, but the feudal rule of the Shan Sawbwas was preserved by the British who chose to rule their states more or less indirectly. Burma was divided into separate administrative units and it could be said that in the frontier areas there was not too much interference in their internal affairs.
This historical fact of non-interference in internal affairs and political separation from what has sometimes been termed ‘Burma proper” caused the frontier peoples to demand local autonomy under the new constitution. Moreover the British, regarding themselves as responsible for the interests of the minorities, asked the Burmese for adequate guarantees for the protection of minority rights in their preliminary negotiations for the transfer of power.
In the circumstances, the Panglong Conference held in the beginning of 1947 was of great significance. In a situation where to many, the fruitful association of the Burmese, and the frontier people seemed doubtful, mutual confidence and trust among Burmese, Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders was secured. They united in a pledge to fight together for Burma’s independence. The agreement provided inter-alia that the Frontier peoples should be entitled to fundamental democratic rights and that they should have the right to full autonomy in the internal sphere.
Still, the participation of the Frontier Areas through their representatives in the constituent assembly (April to September 1947) was on the definite understanding that such participation did not commit the frontier areas to union or federation with Burma. There were other safeguards, such as the stipulation that no proposal in the assembly relating to the mode of government in the Federated Shan States, the Kachin Hills, the Chin Tills and the Karenni States should be deemed to have been carried in the assembly unless it had been voted for not only by a majority of the members of the assembly present but also by a majority of the members present of the unit concerned.
At the opening session of the Constituent Assembly Bogyoke Aung San, addressing the representatives of the frontier peoples said: “The Frontier Areas may or may not join the Union of Burma. There is no force and no compulsion. It is for you to make your decision freely and frankly”. Speeches in support of entry into the Union were made by the various representatives of the national minorities.
Nevertheless, although it was agreed to join together to form a federal state, the right to secession by the states was pressed for in the deliberations of the Assembly and found its way into the constitution although a condition was also inserted that such right was not exercisable within the first ten years.
The crux of the matter was that over and above the federal design of the constitution, which in itself was meant to secure local autonomy for them, the frontier peoples wanted a further safeguard for their autonomy in the future by the inclusion of the right to secession. From this point of view, the presence of this provision in the constitution attests to the sincerity of assurances by the Burmese leadership of full autonomy for the constituent states. Mr.Vum Ko Hau, in an article in the Guardian of October 1954, relates how Thakin Nu was asked in London how a settlement with the frontier peoples had been reached so quickly. Thakin Nu’s been reply was: “By giving them what they want”
Of the political principles which played a part in the achievement of independence by Burma and in determining its form of constitution, the principle of self-determination may be taken as one of the most important. The principle states that every people should have the right freely to choose such form of government or of political and cultural institutions as it thinks will best correspond to its needs. During World War One, allied propagandists had represented the principle as part of the allied programme to liberate certain subject nationalities in eastern, central and south-eastern Europe.
On January 8th, 1918, President Wilson proclaimed his famous 14 points, eight of which dealt with the various territorial problems of Europe on the basis of self-determination. The principle was subsequently applied in the treaties of peace after the war and the entire continent of Europe, west of Russia was divided into states organized on the basis of nationality.
Quite apart from the numerous other considerations which determined the issue, Mr. Attlee was speaking in accordance with this principle, when in the capacity of British Prime Minister, he announced on 20th December 1946 in the British Parliament that the government proposed to review its existing policy towards Burma and said: ‘We do not desire to retain within the Commonwealth and Empire any unwilling peoples. It is for the people of Burma to decide their own future. We consider that the new constitution for Burma should be decided by the nationals of Burma’.
So was Bogyoke Aung San speaking in accordance with the principle of self-determination when he declared in the constituent assembly that it was for the frontier areas to decide freely and frankly what political future they wanted.
x x x x
While the recognition of the principle of self-determination was general after the first world war, Bolshevist doctrine went further than that of the capitalist powers in strongly emphasizing that it entailed the right to secession.
Stalin said: “Nations are sovereign and all nations are equal. The right of self-determination means that a nation can arrange its life according to its will. It has the right to arrange its life on the basis of autonomy. It has the right to enter into federal relations with other nations. It has the right to complete secession”.
The right to secession was included in the Soviet constitution. Each union republic has the right freely to secede from the Union. The right is also included in the federal constitution of Yugoslavia. In regard to these two constitutions, Bogyoke Aung San acknowledged that in drafting the constitution for Burma, the idea of the Chamber of Nationalities had been taken from the former, while the Yugoslav pattern formed the general model.
Hence in the federal constitution of independent Burma, given the very strong feelings of the national minorities for autonomy, it followed that the right to secession would be included. Contrary to the view that it is an absolute right, however, Marxism-Leninism holds that it must not be over indulged, regardless of time and circumstances. In a speech on May 23rd, 1947 before the AFPFL Convention which met as a preparation for the Constituent Assembly, Aung San quoted Lenin with approval: “The various demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not absolute, but a small part of the general democratic (now general socialist) world movement.”
Possibly in individual concrete cases, the part may contradict the whole, if so, it must be rejected. The question of the right of nations fully to secede must not be confused with the question whether it would be expedient for any given nation to secede at any given moment.
The article was written in response to the first written by The Unionist. It also appeared in Tai Youth Magazine – Editor