Establishing ethnic equality in Myanmar is urgently needed and is seen as one of the key solutions to end the seventy years of ethnic armed conflict in the country. However, some people and political leaders may have a lack of understanding of what conditions must be fulfilled to achieve ethnic equality in Myanmar. A lack of clarity about the different conditions for ethnic equality is likely to prevent people from understanding the importance of ethnic equality in the country’s processes of peacebuilding and building a union.
In Myanmar, equality can be divided into three categories: individual, collective and ethnic equality. Examples of individual equality are equal voting rights for all citizens, equal employment opportunities, equality before the law, and so on. Collective equality is the equality of collective groups of people, such as a students’ union or a farmers’ association. However, individual and collective equality are not the main type of equality demanded by Myanmar’s ethnic population but are only part of their broader demands. It is ethnic equality that they have been demanding for a long time. Within Myanmar, however, there are six conditions that must be fulfilled to achieve ethnic equality, and it is important to carefully study each condition.
The first condition is that all ethnic groups living in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar have equal rights to promote, preserve and protect their respective cultures, languages, traditions and socio-economic development within the Union. Unfortunately, such an equality came to an end in Myanmar when the country became independent in 1948. After 2010, some ethnic groups were allowed to study their respective languages in primary schools, but only after regular school hours. The teachers who teach ethnic languages are appointed as daily paid teachers and have not yet been regularized. It seems that concrete actions to fulfil this condition for ethnic equality in the country are missing.
The second condition is that there is no difference in denomination between States and Regions anymore. In Myanmar, 14 political units have been created within the Union, and each of them is said to have an equal political status. Surprisingly, seven of them are called “States” and the remaining seven are called “Regions”. Whereas the States seem to represent the non-Bama ethnic groups, the Regions seem to represent the majority Bama ethnic group. It is difficult to understand why these different names have been given to the territories and to find a leader who can explain this. Giving different names to Myanmar’s territories is unjust and unfair because it promotes discrimination between the people of the States and the people of the Regions. Concrete action to solve this issue and to fulfil this condition for ethnic equality in the country is nowhere to be found.
The third condition is that all States and Regions have their own independent legislative, executive and judiciary bodies. Instead of creating such bodies in every State and Region, strong centralization has been implemented since the start of the formation of the Union of Myanmar in 1947 to dominate the governments of the States and Regions. As a result, the State and Region governments in Myanmar have become subordinate to the Union government, which also put an end to the equal treatment of the country’s ethnic population. Unfortunately, there is still no concrete action on the formation of independent legislative, executive and judiciary bodies in every State and Region.
The fourth condition is a fair power-sharing arrangement between the Union government and the State and Region governments. This is considered one of the most important conditions for ethnic equality in Myanmar, but power sharing between the Union government and the State and Region governments is unfortunately still unfair to this day. While all major powers are in the hands of the Union government, the State and Region governments have only limited powers. An example is that the people of the States and Regions do not have the right to elect their own Chief Ministers. Concrete measures to give the State and Region governments more autonomy are also completely lacking.
The fifth condition relates to the election of representatives in the upper house of the national parliament by all States and Regions. At present, each State and Region has the right to elect 12 representatives in the upper house. Although this number is the same for every State and Region, some ethnic leaders argue that this gives the Bama ethnic representatives a majority, as they are elected by seven Regions.
The sixth condition concerns the number of States and Regions created within the Union. Surprisingly, ethnic leaders have different opinions and understandings about this. One group, for example, believes that “creating eight states in Myanmar, based on ethnicity, is ethnic equality”, arguing that the existing seven ethnic States should be recognized as they are, and that a new state should be created for the majority Bama ethnic people. Another group believes that ethnic equality will be achieved through the continuation of the existing seven States, supplemented by another four to five multi-ethnic States created from the existing seven Regions. Yet another group believes that “recognizing the seven States and seven Regions as fourteen States and giving the same name to all is an example of ethnic equality”. The different views on the number of States and Regions underline the urgent need for ethnic political leaders to talk to each other to decide how many states should be created in Myanmar.
The conditions described above show that ethnic equality in Myanmar does not have to be very extreme or complicated and could be fairly simple and reasonable, but the problem is that every concrete action to fulfil the conditions remains undecided. It can be argued that a lack of clarity about the conditions for ethnic equality tends to undermine the relations between the ethnic political leaders, the Bama ethnic political leaders and the military, and gives rise to doubt and suspicion among the people of Myanmar. The readers of this article are therefore encouraged to focus on the different conditions that must be fulfilled and to continue supporting the peace process to achieve ethnic equality and peace for all.