The word ‘ethnic self-determination’ has something to do with the most controversial issue and attempts to end a period of seventy years of ethnic armed conflict in Myanmar. Some political leaders in Myanmar seem to find difficulty in understanding what ethnic self-determination really means for the people of Myanmar. Some political leaders even believe that ethnic self-determination is closely associated with secession. Lack of clarity on ethnic self-determination in Myanmar is likely to directly or indirectly prevent the people from understanding the significance of ethnic self-determination in a democratic federal union building process.
Self-determination is nothing but the right of a people to determine their own destiny. At group level, it is the right to make their own political decision, choose their own political system, and implement their own cultural and social development. However, self-determination can be differently applied by different people from different countries in different context at different period. In political philosophy, self-determination is classified into three categories as follows;
1. National self-determination
2. External self-determination and
3. Internal self-determination
National self-determination as one of the self-determination categories is related to the concept of building one country for one nation (one race). It means that each nation has the right to build their own independent country in which they can determine their own destiny. If this national self-determination is applied to the context of Myanmar today, then each ethnic group in Myanmar would need to form their own separate country. However, none of the ethnic groups in Myanmar are demanding for national self-determination. Imagined, a particular ethnic group demands national self-determination from the union government, there would not be any single political leader who would support it.
External self-determination has two significant meanings: The first meaning of external self-determination is associated with decolonization. External self-determination, when related to decolonization, means that all colonized people must be freed from the colonists and build their own country. It was learnt that Myanmar has already been freed from the British colonist in 1948. In fact, external self-determination as decolonization is not applicable to the context of Myanmar. The second meaning of external self-determination is associated with secession or independence from the union. It is natural for the people to demand external self-determination from the union government if they feel they are oppressed by other major groups all the time, and do not have the right to determine their own destiny within the union. Fortunately, there is no any ethnic group in Myanmar who attempt to secede from the union. Therefore, external self-determination is not applicable to Myanmar at the present.
Internal self-determination is one of the self-determination types that refers to a limited power within the union. Internal self-determination is neither associated with secession nor independence from the union. Instead, it has to do with the power of state governments within the union government. It is the exact self-determination that ethnic group peoples of Myanmar have called “ethnic self-determination” and have demanded for such a long time. According to Myanmar context, ethnic self-determination has two major significant meanings.
The first meaning of ethnic self-determination in Myanmar is the idea that the people of the states within the union shall have the right to make laws of their own state and implement those laws by themselves. However, the people of the states are not able to enact any law they would desire, as a result of the limitation of ethnic self-determination. Only those laws that fall within the power relegated to the state government can be made. For instance, the people of the Kachin state shall have the right to make laws of Kachin state within the power relegated to Kachin State, and implement those laws by themselves freely. Similarly, the Yangon region has the same right and so do all the remaining states and regions.
The second meaning of ethnic self-determination is the right to write the state’s constitution. The right to state constitution means the people of the state shall write their own respective state constitutions in accordance with power relegated to the state. However, all those state constitutions shall be written in consistency with the union constitution as ethnic self-determination is confined within the union. One example to show a clearer image of what the ethnic self-determination on state constitution looks like is that Union constitution is like the constitution of the Headquarters of the States Union and the state constitution is like its branch. It means that all states and regions in Myanmar would have their own separate state constitutions like USA, Germany and Switzerland, but not copying from them.
The above definitions show that national self-determination, external self-determination and internal self-determination, all frequently called ethnic self-determination in Myanmar, have had very different meanings. It was found that internal self-determination known as ethnic self-determination in Myanmar is not associated with secession. It can be argued that a lack of clarity on these terms is prone to engender doubt and suspicion among peoples of different racial backgrounds. Clear understanding of this term is believed to contribute a positive input to the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong, and also to produce a better result in the building of a democratic federal union based on equality and self-determination for the entire people of Myanmar.