Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Shan – Soon Oob Burng Hangkor

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Autonomy, Shan

Soon Oob Burng Hangkor

Relates to autonomy

The initial element of this term, soon, means ‘rights’, or ‘the right’. Oob, from the Burmese ob, which means ‘to preside over, be in charge’. Burng, from the Burmese paing, or paing naing, means ‘to rule over, to handle something’. Together oob burng means ‘to rule, preside over, have authority over’. Put together with soon they become ‘the right to control matters’. By adding hangkor, meaning ‘individually, separately’, the complete term becomes ‘the right to rule on one’s own.’

Soon oob burng hungkor is the ‘right to rule’ and should be distinguished from having the ‘power to rule’. In Shan, soon oob burng hungkor means having the right to rule over a place or a people with little or no interference. Conversely, the ‘power to rule’ is the preserve of ahna sung sut or ahna jik jawm, the Shan terms which convey the meaning of ‘sovereignty.

The term comes from the hundreds of years of interaction with the Burmese when Shan, Burmese or rulers of mixed Shan-Burmese heritage presided over Burma and the Shan principalities before the coming of the British. According to Shan historian Sai Aung Tun, ‘The Shan chiefs wanted full autonomous rights to manage their own internal affairs. They did not like interference from the king or any one from the central government’.[1] The Shan wanted the right to rule over their principalities.

Although they had the right to rule over their own principalities, it did not mean that they were independent. They could still be subject to a higher prince or king, but interference in local administration was minimal. This structure fitted the feudal nature of the Shan States at the time when the princes pledged allegiance to a higher prince or king, but governed their own fiefdom as they saw fit. Although a royal representative was present in the capitals of the principalities, day-to-day governance was largely left to the princes.

Autonomy for the Shan States within a federal Burma was a central theme of the discussions at the Panglong Conference in 1947. It was understood at the time that there could be local autonomy within a federal structure wherein ultimate power was held by the central government. Shan historian, Sai Aung Tun, says that the resulting Panglong Agreement enunciated among other principles that frontier peoples, ‘should have rights to full autonomy in the internal sphere’. A Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry was set up as a result of the conference to gauge the attitudes of Burma’s ethnic minorities. During meetings held in Pyin Oo Lwin from late March to late April, the committee observed that, ‘Witnesses unanimously expressed their desire for the fullest possible autonomy for the states within the Federation and agreed that certain subjects of general scope should be entrusted to the Federation’.[2] The majority of the witnesses were from the Shan States or Shan majority areas of northern Burma. In the following quote from a statement issued 52 years later (quoted by the Shan Herald Agency for News), Colonel Yord Serk – Chairman of the Shan State Peace Council -made it clear that ‘autonomy’ (soon oob burng hungkor) relates to internal affairs, and concerns in particular the maintenance of peace and the rule of law:

“In a statement issued in Shan this morning, Yawdserk said Shan State became part of the Union led by Burma through the Panglong Agreement in 1947, when total autonomy in states’ internal affairs had been guaranteed. ‘Opium output in Shan State was kept under control before because there was peace and rule of law,’ he told SHAN. ‘And there was peace and rule of law, because Shan State was free to manage its own affairs.’”[3]

In the late 1950s there was a push to amend the constitution to better reflect a truly federal Burma and one of the issues was the lack of ‘autonomy’ (soon oob burng hungkor). The point that arose from this issue was that the term soon oob burng hungkor did not mean a rejection of the idea of a superior power, however the idea of interference in internal matters was objected to in the Shan States. A meeting was held by the Shan State government in November 1960 in Taunggyi that established the (Shan State) Steering Committee for the Amendment to the Constitution of the Union of Burma. The committee produced ‘The Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the Union of Burma, submitted by the Shan State’ which was approved by the State Convention on February 25 1961 in Taunggyi. Among other subjects of governance, the proposal spelled out what it believed should be entailed for autonomy:

  1. The right of every constituent state, including the Burma State which shall be established, to complete autonomy shall be spelled out in the new constitution. The constitution shall require that there be no interference by the central government or by any other state in the internal affairs of any state.
  2. Since the revised new Constitution of the Union of Burma will be of the genuine federal type, the states shall each have their own constitution, their own State Legislative Assembly, their own separate government, and their own distinct and separate judiciary and courts of law, provided that these state institutions are not inconsistent with the Central Union Constitution.
  3. For those people who lack the qualifications for forming a state, national areas shall be established, and guarantees for the protection of national rights shall be entrenched in the new constitution.[4]

Soon oob burng hungkor as a political goal is a concept that is recognised largely only by Shan political and military leaders and activists. For most Shan the intrusion of the Burmese Army to flush the Kuomintang out of Burma in the 1950s and the coup of 1962 which put an end to Shan moves to amend the constitution for greater autonomy, were signs that the Shan needed to be independent of Burma. As such, the usage of ‘soon oob burng hungkor’ suggests that it does not convey or suggest the meaning of ‘independence’ or ‘sovereignty’ but the right of self-governance without external interference.

Soon oob burng hungkor remains the rally cry for most Shan, but leaders and activists have long recognised that this is not likely, especially since it is against the wishes of their northern neighbour, China. According to a veteran Shan fighter who was involved in the first armed group in 1958, the Noom Suk Harn, ‘the concept of autonomy has become very important to the Shan people. ‘Autonomy’ (Soon oob burng hungkor) has come to mean for the Shan, ‘a Shan State within a federal Burma, but without Burmese interference.’ In practice, leaders and activists call for an autonomous Shan State within a federal Burma, while trying to educate the population that the way forward is soon oob burng hungkor, a struggle that a well-known Shan journalist described as ‘swimming against the current’.[5]



[1] Sai Aung Tun, History of the Shan State from its Origins to 1962, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2009, p. 118.

[2] Ibid, p. 231.

[3] SHAN, “Politics key to end of drug menace, says Shan leader”, SHAN, 25 March 2009,

[4] Ibid, p. 399.

[5] Discussions with Sai Khuensai Jaiyen, Chiang Mai, 2008-2009.





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