The 1947 Panglong Conference in Shan State is often viewed, simplistically, as the catalyst for the subsequent decades of civil strife and rebellion in Myanmar. Promises of equality were made to the ethnic nationality groups, promises which were then broken by successive democratic and military administrations after the assassination of the architect of the conference, Bogyoke Aung San. What is often forgotten is the gathering that occurred before the Panglong Conference. The organisers, both Bamar and ethnic minority leaders understood the importance of establishing a common, cultural ground before the heavy, and inevitably controversial political debates that would follow. This pre-cursor featured days of literature talks, wrestling matches, dancing and singing, food stalls and animal races. It was a celebration of the differences that would form the new Union of Myanmar. No such attempt at trust building had been considered before the start of the ongoing 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences and the success of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement will suffer for it.
Perhaps belatedly, but still promising, the regional State governments are taking the lead in promoting cultural understanding between the ethnic groups, at least within their own States, with the emergence of literature festivals.
From 21st to 25th March, Taunggyi will be the centre of possibly the largest festival of ethnic literature seen in Myanmar since that first gathering in 1946.
Held at the grounds of the annual Fire Balloon celebration, the festival will feature readings, not just from the Tai ethnic groups, but other communities living within the state, including Taing Lone (Shan Gyi), Gone Shan, Taing Khem Ti, Taing Sar (or) Maing Tar, Taing Lai (Shan), Taing Nay (Shan), Wa, Pa-O, Danu, Inthar, Ta’aung (Palaung), Kokang, Kachin, Kayan, Yinnet, Yinkyar, Taung Yo, Tanaw, Lisu, Arkar, Lahu, and An people.
Across the five days there will be dance troupes, food vendors, textile exhibits and entertainments, but at its core is the promotion of ethnic language literature with the aim of ‘bringing ethnic people closer in support of the peace process and establishing a federal democracy’.
The Shan State festival comes on the heels of a similar, though smaller, event held in Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State a month ago. Organised by the Karen State government, the festival aimed at ‘promoting friendship between ethnic people in Kayin State, strengthening solidarity amiong them and preserving traditional customs and culture’. As in the Shan festival, the four day event featured literature readings from ethnic nationalities residing in Karen State, including the various sub-Karen groups, the Shan, Mon, PaO and Bamar.
Though these festivals appear to have the support of the Ministry of Information, it’s no real surprise to see such a large event on offer in Shan State who have a history of large scale literary events through the Shan Culture and Literature Association and their annual literature development conference. Other states, especially Kayah and Chin States may find it more problematic to host similar festivals, where the recognition of different ethnic communities, and their right to identify as an ethnic group based on their language and literature is far more unstable and could potentially expose ethnic divides rather than unite them. Still, the efforts of the State governments, and the support of the Union government, is promising. Events such as these are a necessity, not just in promoting and developing ethnic language literature but by asserting ethnic literatures rightful position within a national Myanmar literature.