Bogyoke Nyar De, or “General, you lied,” was a song popularized among Burma’s ethnics by Shan singer Sai Seng Mong in the early1970’s. It was in reference to the unrealized promises of equality that Bogyoke Aung San pledged to the minorities at the time of the Panglong Conference—a political meeting of ethnic leaders and other relevant stakeholders in 1947 which not only provided a basis for the federal state but also guaranteed the ethnic minorities a right to secede from the Union 10 years after Burma won independence from Britain.
Although it was not fair to blame the Bogyoke, as his life was tragically cut short in the same year of the conference before he could implement his promises, the song struck a chord with the Shans and other ethnic minorities because it symbolized the frustrations they felt over the inequalities that existed between the minorities and the majority Bamas.
The ethnic minority signatories of the Panglong Agreement had their misgivings about joining hands with the Bamas from the very beginning. Duwa Shan Lone, who served as Secretary of the Panglong Conference, recounted in his memoirs a pivotal conversation Bogyoke Aung San had with the Shan leaders at Panglong. Bogyoke was making courtesy calls on the hill tribes’ leaders at the close of the plenary session on the second day of the conference. At his meeting with the Shan leaders, Sao Shwe Thaik, the Sawbwa of Yawngwhe, bluntly told Bogyoke Aung San that although they trusted him, they did not trust the other Burmese leaders. Bogyoke countered by telling them to put their trust instead in the constitution they would be drafting together. The Shan leaders were won over, as they were able to address their concerns in a constitutional clause that accorded them the right to secede from the union, if they so wished, after a period of ten years. History will attest to how well that went. It was this very clause that General Ne Win used to justify his military coup of 1962.
The ethnics did not fair too well under the parliamentary democracy of Prime Minister U Nu either. Duwa Zanhtar Sin, the former Head of Kachin State, in his booklet Democracy Byaungbyan (Democracy Upturned), chronicled how U Nu and his party tried to meddle in the affairs of Kachin State in a most undemocratic way. He found U Nu’s shenanigans particularly galling, given the fact that U Nu had often, in his Union Day and Martyr’s Day speeches, acknowledged the contributions of Kachin servicemen and lauded them as saviors of the newly independent republic. It is a historical fact that the Kachins, together with other ethnic minorities, played a major role in protecting the country against a myriad of insurgencies, bringing the Union back from the brink of disintegration. If U Nu’s tributes and expressions of gratitude sounded hollow then, the army’s treatment of Kachins today is harrowing to say the least.
General Ne Win, he of the infamous “shoot straight and not into the air” order, and successive military juntas have used brute force as a means of subjugating public unrest. They are, as has been said, “equal opportunity oppressors,” brutally mowing down all who challenge or are perceived to challenge their authority, irrespective of age, gender, creed, social standing or ethnic origin. Muslim Rohinjas, Karen or Kachin Christians, students, workers, even the revered Buddhist Sangha have born the brunt of their wrath.
And now we have former Gen Thein Sein, widely lauded as a more moderate and reform-minded leader. His image-polishing efforts may be paying off internationally, but to the Kachins he is just another general whose words cannot be trusted. It has been more than a month since he made public his directive to end the army’s offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), but there has been no cessation of hostilities. On the contrary, more than 90 battles or clashes have taken place, with a steady surge in troop reinforcement since then. Did the President lie, or was he blindsided by his generals?
What of the Bogyoke's daughter—the Lady, the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Ethnic groups had looked to her as the one Bama leader they could trust, the one with the integrity, charisma and capability to rally everyone behind her as her father once did. The Kachins also had pinned great hopes on her, as someone with the international stature to intervene on their behalf in the face of the army’s onslaught. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, even held an unprecedented birthday celebration for her at Laiza, attended by none other than the chairman himself.
The KIO was clearly sending her a message. But how did the Lady react? With deafening silence: no condemnation of atrocities committed against helpless Kachin civilians, or of chemical weapons being deployed.