Regardless of the difficulties and challenges facing Myanmar’s peace process, what ultimately will matter most is whether the government and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) can adopt a federal model for Myanmar on which both sides can agree. The speech delivered by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor, at the formal ceremony of the fourth anniversary of the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), held on 28 October 2019, will certainly pave the way for Myanmar’s quest to construct its own federal model, as has long been demanded by ethnic nationalities in Myanmar.
There are two important points on federalism that she mentioned that are politically significant and historic in a sense for the future federation of the Union of Myanmar/Burma.
Firstly, she said: “Our government wanted to establish a federal union that our ethnic people had dreamt for years. It is not time, but well past time for our country to achieve peace. (…) Without establishing a federal union based on equality of ethnic people, we wouldn’t see peace in our country. Without establishing an ethnic national unity based on Panglong spirit, our country wouldn’t develop.” This statement is a strong and loud proclamation that articulates her commitment to establishing a federal system in Myanmar. Equally important, she also explains in the clearest possible terms the true nature of Myanmar’s peace process and its main purpose, asserting that ‘there would be no peace without establishing a federal system in Myanmar.’ This is absolutely crucial. As a matter of fact, efforts to end the protracted armed conflict in Myanmar will not be successful without securing a federal system relevant to Myanmar. It is therefore urgent for the leaders of Myanmar’s peace process to begin negotiating the outstanding federal principles to reach common agreement in their current political dialogue. The sooner they can get agreement on basic democratic as well as federal principles, the sooner they can end armed conflict to achieve peace.
Secondly, she also stated firmly: “We said repeatedly that achieving sustainable peace would be possible only if a true federal union could be established. Division of power must be in accordance with a federal system. All federal units are equal. States will have a constitution that assures self-determination.” There are two salient points that are very crucial to the federalization process of Myanmar through the peace process. The first is her point on the need to discuss a division of power between the Union/federal government and the member States/Regions of the Union. This is very crucial for the question about the sequence and logical steps; which agendas should be prioritized in the ongoing political dialogue? Without first determining a division of power between the federal government and the member states of the Union, it is irrational and impossible to talk about reforming state institutions at both levels of government. Therefore, in the current political dialogue, the federal principles that the leaders of the peace process are discussing and negotiating should focus on the decisive list of political powers that each level of government – the federal government and the State and Region governments – would have in accordance with the principle of division of power in a federal system.
The other, and by far the most important point that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made about federal principles for Myanmar is the right of the member states of the Union to write their own constitution without contradicting the constitution of the future Union they are working towards now. To put this in context, this very concept of ‘the right to a state constitution for member states of the Union’ is at the core of ‘the right to self-determination’ that ethnic national minorities have been demanding in their long quest for self-rule. They often equate the right to a state constitution with the ability to exercise their right to self-determination in the future federation of Myanmar. Politically speaking, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi emphasizing that States will have constitutions that ensure self-determination is one of the most significant and historic statements that will have a substantial positive impact on the configuration of the future federal model for Myanmar.
For ethnic national minorities, 28 October 2019, the day on which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi officially mentioned her promise to grant the member states of the Union the right to a state constitution, will be remembered as their landmark political achievement. What is needed now is to formalize that very right to a state constitution for the member states of the Union as one of the basic federal principles for Myanmar in their formal agreement as part of the Union Accord (UA), which would be the basis to amend the 2008 Constitution. Now, all forces advocating for a genuine federal system in Myanmar should capitalize on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s promise to build the momentum of their federalism campaign to make it a reality.