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n March 1, 2012, President Thein Sein gave a speech to the joint session of both chambers -- equivalent to the annual State of the Union address to Congress by the President of the United States. In his remarks, the President highlighted his accomplishments on both the domestic and international front, outlined the nation’s challenges on many levels, and offered his administration a nation-building blueprint to tackle the nation’s crises - both economic and political. Among many issues he identifies as challenges facing the Union of Burma, the President correctly singled out the nation’s number one political problem: the denial of rights of equality and self-determination to the country’s ethnic national minorities. This is the main political dilemma that has dragged Burma into the theatre of civil war since Burma’s independence.

Breaking from his predecessors, the President seems to have embraced the ethno-cultural diversity of the country, acknowledging the fact that the policy of systematic Burmanization is counter-productive in a multi-ethnic Burma. In addition, he also seems willing to assume full responsibility and leadership to resolve the nation’s ongoing political crisis. Though it is premature to judge whether or not the President’s undertaking will bring an end to the country’s political quagmire, the President deserves credit for displaying his intention to find a negotiated settlement to the nation’s crisis. But as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and only time will tell if President Thein Sein will deliver upon his commitment to finding a negotiated solution via political dialogue at the national/Union level. I for one would like to give the benefit of the doubt to the President’s ongoing reforms and offer my opinion on his road-map to peace.

Those who follow Burma’s politics, understand well that political survival, stability, and longevity of the Union of Burma as a united country lies in how well the collective leadership of all national ethnicities together manage the majority-minority conundrum. I'm of course referring to the tension that exists between the dominant Bama and the other ethnic national minorities and the necessity to find some kind of institutional arrangement that caters to the country’s geopolitical diversity. As a way forward, President Thein Sein offers his government’s nation-building scheme in which he joins the leaders of ethnic national minorities in calling for an embrace of the Panglong spirit. The Panglong spirit is basically the principle that fully embraces Unity in Diversity - forming a united country among different nationalities with mutual respect, cooperation and understanding - and equality for all constituent member states of the Union. If interpreted correctly, the Panglong spirit is the belief that fundamentally endorses a federal system as the institutional design for a multi-ethnic Burma. Unlike leaders of ethnic nationalities calling for rebuilding the union of Burma according to a genuine federal system, both President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have not spelled out the term “Federal Union" or "Federation” thus far.

The fact that they have not mentioned about their position on federalism raises serious question about their own philosophies on how to govern a multi-ethnic Burma. When it comes to the question of federalism for Burma, Daw Suu only talks about how the general masses - which have long been brainwashed by Burman chauvinists and military generals - have a misconception about how federalism equates to secession. In fact, in line with their policy of assimilation, there are some chauvinists who hypothesize that giving more power to a federating unit will lead to secession and eventually to disintegration of the union.   Their theoretical reasoning here is to suggest that the accumulation of more powers by federating units creates incentive to secede. I understand the rationale behind the chauvinist proposition. However, what they fail to examine is the other side of the coin: the reasons as to why federating units would ever resort to secession from the Union.

In his speech - on what he seems to establish as non-negotiable grounds - the President understandably stated that he would accept no concessions whatsoever on this question of secession by any group. But why would ethnic minorities ever bother seceding from the Union in the first place? Would the incentive to secede from the Union (a bogus Union so far) be more likely because of the gradual accumulation of power by a prospective federating/constituent unit? Or would it rather be because of far deeper political discontent – institutional suppression and alienation - including the lack of representation experienced by a constituent state in mainstream politics? I would say the latter. I would argue that the accumulation of powers by the federating unit would not amount to secession, but rather the opposite: that outright secession would rather occur if and when a federating unit experiences institutional suppression, disenfranchisement, and alienation from mainstream national politics.

The issue is not whether the ill-informed general mass has a misconception about federalism - as Daw Suu suggests - but that she has not made a convincing case about the need for federalism. A leader has to identify the root of the problem, prescribe the right policy solution to the problem, and convince his/her followers to join the proposed course of action. Instead of evading it, it is essential that both Daw Suu and President Thein Sein stake out their intuitive belief and viewpoint on this question of federalism for the Union of Burma. As a native of Burma and a member of ethnic national minorities, I would assert once again that the utter failure to adopt a federal system for the future Union of Burma is doomed to failure from the outset; that any future negotiation without adopting federalism in principle at least is a non-starter for territorially-based ethnic national minorities. Overall the need to manage unity and diversity in divided multi-ethnic societies such as Burma is the greatest underlying factor behind the adoption of the federal system. As Lawrence Anderson states, “federalism has come to be seen as a way to accommodate territorially based ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences in divided societies while maintaining the territorial integrity of existing states.” [1] By all means, it is worth noting that none of the ethnic nationalities today seek independence or secession, but are committed to reforming the Union of Burma in line with a federal system.

In accord with the basic principles of the Army constitution, the President also makes emphatically clear that no concession can be made on the three national causes: non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, and the perpetuation of national sovereignty. All stakeholders have no qualms about accepting the three national causes as non-negotiable. But, the President needs to define what he means in greater detail. The problem in the past has been that the over-arching assimilation scheme has been the guiding principle behind their policy formulation of the three national causes. They systematically deny the ethnocultural diversity of the country and pursue the scheme of assimilating all ethnic minorities into Burman/Bama race. Consider how governments since General Ne Win have conflated “unity” with unrealistic “uniformity.” With brute force, these governments have in reality only achieved conflict, which will continue if President Thein Sein repeats the same mistake of his predecessors.

Their stubbornly dogmatic characterization of the term “unity” is really one of “monolithic uniformity” where they choose to live in fruitless denial about the existence of territorial-based national minorities. Words matter in this context. The term “non-disintegration” is deceptive because while it sounds like minorities are to be protected, in practice; the term means that all ethnic national minorities will be absorbed into the Burman/Bama ethnicity. This approach has proven futile. In fact, under this pretext of non-disintegration of the union, the successive military governments’ assimilationist policy only intensifies armed resistance and leads to further mistrust especially between the Bama/Burman race and other ethnicities combined. Moving forward, to fulfil Burma’s ultimate destiny of national reconciliation and peace, leaders have to bear the same understanding of what it means to form a stable union, and we know from history that “stability” and “unity” do not mean “uniformity,” for forced uniformity only leads to unstable conflict.

The President also touches on the issue of the possibility of constitutional reform and lays down the procedure, inviting citizens of all political affiliations to formally join the process of revising and modifying the existing constitution within the framework of the national legislature. Making changes to constitutional provisions in a parliament is in sync with democratic practices, but such absolute reliance on the national parliament in a Burmese context today would potentially impede the participation of those leading democratic opposition movements - who will be opposed to the idea of limiting a constitutional dialogue only within Parliament. Such a limitation to the constitutional amendment process would only allow the participation of members of parliament who are already inside the ring. As a result, no substantive changes to the constitution can be expected, and it will leave no room, in particular, for ethnic armed opposition groups to maneuver, but to continue their armed resistance struggles. As a matter of fact, the sense of suspicion among leaders of ethnic armed opposition groups over the government reform package is real and deep. Therefore, during this fragile and uncertain period of initial transition, it is advisable that the government rather makes the legislative process wide open, particularly to include members of the democratic opposition operating outside of the parliamentary process, with whom the government is intending to negotiate.

As an alternative, once a certain level of negotiation is achieved, the government should consider forming a constitutional amendment committee that comprises government representatives, member representatives of all political parties, members of both aboveground and underground resistance groups, and legal scholars. Such a committee would conduct comprehensive studies of other constitutions, hold public consultations as needed, and come up with a draft constitution to present the parliament for debate within a set timeline. Allowing members of the opposition to be a part of the constitutional amendment process would definitely boost their confidence in the transition process and would better serve the entire nation's best interest. Therefore, at least in principle, it is pivotal that a part of the agreement at the upcoming Union level negotiations should entail adopting a constitutional amending formula detailing a general constitutional amendment procedure.

To conclude, the sizable population disparity between the dominant ethnic Burman majority and that of ethnic national minorities has played and will continue to play a significant role in Burma’s politics because the political fault lines are based on ethnicity or race, religion, and territory. And, the ethnic minorities’ fear of tyranny of the Burman majority is inherent and genuine. As an institutional design for an ethnoculturally diverse and divided society like Burma, a constitutional federation that would accommodate the aspirations of ethnic national minorities is of absolute necessity. As such, a written constitution that would stand as a contract between federal units and the federal government should (and will) be a prerequisite for ethnic national minorities to join and form the legitimate Union of Burma. Ethnic national minorities of Burma require a written constitution as a bulwark against ethnic Burman majority domination and as a guarantee that their inherent rights will be constitutionally entrenched. Without securing a prior written constitution, ethnic minorities will have no trust incentive to participate in the democratic Union of Burma; indeed, no real union will exist

[1] Jan Erk and Lawrence Anderson, "The paradox of federalism: Does Self-Rule Accommodate or Exacerbate Ethnic division?" Regional & Federal Studies; Vol. 19, No. 2, (May 2009): 196.  


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