Federal System Under Consideration to End Ethnic Conflicts, Minister Concedes

Aung San Suu Kyi at today's World Economic Forum BBC debate in Naypyidaw (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Aung San Suu Kyi at today’s World Economic Forum BBC debate in Naypyidaw (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

NAYPYIDAW — Burma is considering adopting a federal system to end the conflicts with the country’s numerous ethnic armed groups, a top government minister said on Thursday.

Union Minister Soe Thane cited the federalist system in use in Germany, as a possible model. “We are thinking about what you have said — federalism,” in response to a question posed during a debate with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, staged by the BBC at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw.

Many of Burma’s myriad ethnic minority militias and their associated political parties have long sought a federalist Burma, citing the 1947 Panglong agreement in which Burma’s independence hero General Aung San pledged to devolve power to some of the country’s larger ethnic groups.

However a military coup in 1962 put paid to those aspirations, with the army believing that federalism would lead to secession by ethnic minority regions, which are some of Burma’s most resource-rich areas.

“In 1962, people were afraid of federalism,” said Soe Thane earlier on Thursday.

In the intervening decades civil wars have sputtered on across Burma’s borderland regions, close to China, Thailand and India, though a series of tentative ceasefire agreements have been signed between the government and the armed ethnic groups, the most recent of which came about last week, in Myitkina, the regional capital of Kachin State in Burma’s north, where fighting since June 2011 has left over 100,000 people homeless.

However some say that more than administrative changes are needed to bring about lasting peace in Burma.

Historian and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) Thant Myint U said that Burma needs to build a more inclusive identity that transcends ethnic differences.

“It should not just about Burmans versus ethnic minorities,” he told the WEF meeting on Thursday, warning that Burma’s ethnic rivalries could undermine the current political and economic transition. “It is critical for us all to get beyond ethnic identities,” he exhorted.

National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire in recent months for her apparent reluctance to discuss ethnic conflict and sectarian abuses in Burma, particularly attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority, the majority of whom are stateless and live in Burma’s western Arakan state.

“I have not been silent, I cannot doctor my answers to please everyone,” she said today.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma in recent decades, while over 100,000 have been driven from their homes since mid-2012 during bouts of violence in Arakan state. There the local state administration now seeking to revive an old law limiting Rohingya, who are labeled Bengali immigrants by the Burmese government, to two children per family.

Suu Kyi said recently that this amounted to discrimination, and today, she advocated that Burma’s controversial 1982 citizenship law, which curtails Rohingya’s rights, be looked at. “We must reassess the 1982 citizenship law to see if it is line with international norms,” she said.

During the discussion, the BBC played a recording of a recent interview with Rohingya politician Abu Tahay of the Union National Development Party, who the BBC said was denied access to the WEF meeting in Naypyidaw. Tahay pleaded with Suu Kyi to speak up on behalf of his people, who he described as oppressed.

During a wide-ranging discussion covering politics, the economy, history, and ethnic relations, Soe Thane and Suu Kyi were joined on stage by former political prisoner Zin Mar Aung, while other prominent Burmese public figures spoke from the audience, including Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann.

Asked whether Burma’s military would accept a reduced political role in the future, a key opposition demand, Shwe Mann said: “That depends on the constitution.”

Aung San Suu Kyi today re-stated her call for the 2008 constitution to be revised—changes that if implemented in time, could enable her become President if her party wins the 2015 election. She is currently barred from the Presidency due to her sons holding British passports.

“But if I pretended that I didn’t want to be president I wouldn’t be honest, and I would rather be honest with my people.” Suu Kyi conceded.

31 Responses to Federal System Under Consideration to End Ethnic Conflicts, Minister Concedes

  1. Genuine federalism, what is it. What have we, there is no national- collective identity in Burma- Myanmar, Remember Yugoslavia was a Federal Republic. The gauntlet has been thrown. Its now a age of hybridity and ambiguity . where “ethnic-nationalism” would hold sway wether we with smiles. handshakes hugs etc act on a stage , the script being written and borrowed from others. Wether we are burmans or non-burmans we must firstly understand that without trust to co-exist in a territory known to us as Burma . the splitting of Burma into different states nation is apparent. The fault lines are there now. Why not a Unitary state in form but the structures and processes that drive the polity and economy can be crafted together with equal rights can take on federal characteristics. Indian federalism as well as the Australian, Canadian, or the German variant could be considered. Let the Burmese people decide through a referendum or a plebiscite . This is the 21st century. and not the century of the past where constitution was written to be erased later. The present is as history.

  2. A FEDERAL SYSTEM like in Germany will not perform wonders.
    Germany with its generous policies towards Moslem immigrations (mainly from Turkey and some Arabic countries) has created COUNTLESS PROBLEMS herself. The most serious one: A split among the Germans themselves. But it is a fact that the vast majority of Germans have no sympathy for Islam and her followers. Islam has become a SYNOYM for State Within The State, Fanatism, Terrorism, Impertinent Demands, Misuse of Public Relief etc. In short: TROUBLE. And now the Germans have a life task.

    • German Traveler,
      You must be very close relative of Hitler who exterminated Jews before second world war.

      • @M Haji,
        I am not a relative of Hitler, just the opposite, but see clearly that especially fanatic/militant Islam is a fascistic-religious movement resembling partly what Hitler once established. And countless Europeans/Germans share the same opinion referring to the “Religion of Peace” (an ironic term used for Islam by many westerners).

    • The govt had better stick to its guns. This is a territorial and immigration issue highlighted by the physical, linguistic and religious differences. Invasion/illegal immigration doth not make an indigenous race. Alien registration for aliens in our midst.

  3. This is actually a good news and it should have been like this from the beginning. Now after ten of thousands of ethnic minorities have become homeless in their own homeland, it’s even a bit late. However, as saying goes, “better be late than never”.

    Deep-rooted ethnic problems are not solvable by quick fixes that amount to just temporary peace. War can break out anytime again if there is no balance of power between stakeholders. Many ethnic groups in Burma are still armed heavily and will try to strengthen their position with the influx of new capital and it’s a basic characteristic of human beings. No one wants to be threaten no matter how weak they are.

    For the whole society to be prosperous these conflicts should be resolved before one embarks on the road to development because any developments that will be made can easily be destroyed if civil wars were to break out again. Look no further than Syria. And then it will be much harder to recover from such position. Thus, Burma can only become the next asian tiger if peace and political stability is first on the ground. There is no other system out there which is better than federalism for Burma.

  4. Daw Suu Kyi’s saying “I have not been silent, I cannot doctor my answers to please everyone,” is disingenuous and illustrates how she has moved from being an inspiration to being an exasperation. To say that “both sides should stop fighting in Kachin” is failing to answer the question, in other words being silent. The Kachin are defending their own people and territory from an invading army. They have no choice in the matter and were the Tatmadawgyi to withdraw, the fighting would stop.

    In the case of the Rohingya, “We must reassess the 1982 citizenship law to see if it is line with international norms,” is, yet another, way of remaining silent and failing to speak up for oppressed people. She knows, and we all know that she knows, that the 1982 law is very far from international norms. She also knows that speaking up on behalf of the Rohingya would be electoral suicide and becoming President takes priority over what is just.

    Ministerial Burma was not the country that exists today and, if she continues to insist on the use of ‘Burma’, let her use the correct title, ‘The Union of Burma’. That way she can avoid insulting the 40% of the population who are not ‘Burmese’.

    • U Mr Sai Lang Kham The politics of Equality , Identity, Difference and Recognition etc is now in play. But it is not the ruling elites who has the absolute right , and consider that he/she/us ought to determine the life chances and destiny of others., It should be the peoples choice– the ordinary working peoples choice, wether he/she is a Shan, Kayin, Mon, Chin, Pao, Wa , Lishu et c etc. to decide on Union or separatuion. Anyway THe Union of Burma now is only in ones imagination.\

  5. “Suu Kyi said recently that this amounted to discrimination, and today, she advocated that Burma’s controversial 1982 citizenship law, which curtails Rohingya’s rights, be looked at. “We must reassess the 1982 citizenship law to see if it is line with international norms,” she said.”

    In my view, our country is not for people who are illegal immigrants.
    If she is blindly holding human rights to amend the 1982 citizenship law, our country could be filled with all illegal immigrants from neighbour countries when she would be elected as a president in 2015.
    This is very serious I suppose.

    Immigration laws are to protect its own nation’s stability and security.
    If our country has to give a highest priority for human rights regardless of the security, this country would never get a peace. People would never feel safe!

    • Idiot. Immigration law is for immigrants, legal or illegal. To deport or to allow to stay, immigration law is needed. It is not just to protect the citizens. I hope you were born in Burma and migrated abroad legally or illegally. Be considerate for others to are in Burma illegally or illegally.

    • Dear Violet
      If every kinds of law is not in the manner of fair and square, that law should be changed or amended at once. All laws are made by human, simply based on the ethnics, moral , as well as fairness. U nu favoured Rohingya right and Ne win-1982 citizenship law suppress Rohingya right. Do you think paranoid Ne win is a fair person? Do you know why U nu favour Rohingya right ? DASSK is saying the above similar meaning in the aspects of all unfair laws, implemented by faked Buddhist opportunistic U nu, notorious, paranoid ne win and ethnics and monk killer fox than shwe respectively.
      If you are in the stone-age, you do not need to correct your wrong doing and mistake on every things. During stone age, law is from ones’ power/ strength and ones’ interest only because of lack of civilization. We, all ordinary Burmese are civilized but suppressed by fox than shwe to push us to the stone-age. Then, fox than shwe can easily and readily to cheat naive Burmese and monks.

  6. “Many of Burma’s myriad ethnic minority militias and their associated political parties have long sought a federalist Burma, citing the 1947 Panglong agreement in which Burma’s independence hero General Aung San pledged to devolve power to some of the country’s larger ethnic groups.”
    That is the only solution by implementation of 1947 panglong agreement sincerely. However, all ethnics must be , wise, united and do not let bama military thugs to cheat you again and again.

  7. ( “But if I pretended that I didn’t want to be president I wouldn’t be honest, and I would rather be honest with my people.” )

    What a shame for her to said that?
    Let’s say , if there wasn’t General Aung San ,
    now a day so such a Daw Aung San Su Kyi become politican.
    She is famous because of her father, and she
    fully copycat from him .We want change , we don’t want
    so call Human right leader or Nobel prize winner. We need
    real National Leader who’s really do work for our people.
    We don’t need opposition leader . She is really overestimate
    about her party and her action. She is like Sample Cake
    bakery shop used to show people interest to buy cake from
    their shop . Real one is not same as sample fake one.
    We know what is real and which is fake ( Sample ).

  8. Federal system or Autonomous region will work. Wish DASSK , our future leader the best. Two thumbs up…

    • Regional or area autonomy does not mean that the individual in a given social group or has to co-exist with others neighbours within society or a polity has the unlimited autonomy— absolute freedom. . Rule . compact and contracts need to be forged amongst human as equals–

  9. Ethnic has every right to demand Federal. Central Govt has every right to disarm ethnic . Must have only one army at one country. We all fight military rule in country to get the Govt which is elected by public. The same rule in ethnic area. Our ethnics want own federal govt which is elected by them not ruled by arms.

    And also calculate what would be demand of 135 different ethnics who lives in area. Let me remind you. Military coup because of armed ethnic separation and insist that our country will be separated pieces by pieces after their term. I don’t want to believe what they say but situation is closer

    1982 immigration rule might be too strict. How we will act to foreigners ( Chinese & Bengali) who was born and raised on our land. Where are we going to deport them? Won’t let them to access the school?. Cruel. OR shall we change the clause to give citizenship right for those who live here certain period?. Scary our future. But definitely need to discuss by expertise at parliament.


  10. Great news! Myanmar/Burma has a little to lose but more to gain from federal systems.

  11. “In 1962, people were afraid of federalism” Soe Thane said. Where did he get this information? Is he a reincarnated Kyaw Shan? If people were afraid of federalism in 1962, why would not go underground to fight back for democracy. Soe Thane is blatantly lying. Shame on him. He is still talking in defense of Ne Win.

  12. I have written a comment on the Buddhist-Muslim riots by mistake under th article “DASSK needs a bold soldier”, which deals with the amendment of the “Nargis constituition”.
    So I am trying to rectify this by posting a comment on the constituition also – though it is not quite clear to me what can be done about it.

    The “Nargis constituition” ratified by another some sham vote of the population in May 2008 is a complicated document, which was more or less unknown to the people who voted (at gun point) to accept it. I was able to copy it from the internet and went throughit once, but I do not have the legal expertise to give a well informed opinion on it.

    The constituition may be connected with “the need for the rule of law”.
    It seems to be fairly impossible to govern a country in a democratic way within the framework of such an constituition, which gives special previleges and exemption from accountability to the military again and again. I wonder, whether it will be sufficient to amend it.It may be easier to replace it.
    But it took 20 years to formulate this constituition (from 1988 to 2008), Obviously the previous government just used the compiling of the constituition as an excuse not to hand over authority to winners of the 1990 election.
    Later I found a copy of the first Constituition of the Union of Burma among the papers my parents had. It was compiled by the U Nu government soon after independence. Would it be possible to just revive this old constituition???

    Meanwhile I realized that would not satisfy the ethnic minorities in Myanmar, because they want a federal constituition, which gives them autonomy in thei places where they live. This is their right, because it was promised to them in writing by Bogyoke Aung Than, just before Myanmar became independent from British colonial rule.- the famous Panglong Conference.

    Then I discovered the Rajadhamma Sangaha by Yaw Min Gyi U Po Hlaing, which he compiled after the death of King Mindon, as an advice to King Thibaw, for modernising the Royal Government of the Konbaung Kingdom, – U Po Hlaing was a brave and intelligent person. He was famous for his independent thinking. But this effort to advise the king was not only ignored, he even just lost his position in the royal service..
    His family had served several Myanmar kings for three generations.
    (His father was killed by King Tharrawaddy (Thayawady = Sayavati) who pierced him with a spear in a fit of royal anger.) So it was not so easy to advise the king even in the 19th century.

    I also read a book on the history of Thailand, and discovered, that this “serene and happy, prosperous kingdom” which escaped colonial rule, had in fact been ruled by different military strong men more or less for the last 80 years – ever since 1932 – under the guise of a constituitional monarchy. Different military rulers had established and scrapped and swapped, re-instituted and cancelled a number of different constituitions, EACH ONE ACCORDING TO HIS CONVENIENCE.

    What is the value of such constituitions, which are not respected as the most important law of the country???
    The real touch stone for good governance is, how far the people themselves are accepted as the SOUVEREIGN RULER. Is the government beneficial to them? Is the will of the public respected? Do all citizens have safety and enough to eat, do they have jobs, health care and opportunity for education? Do men and women have equal opportunities? Not only the majority, including the minorities.
    The compilers of a good constituition should have a pure heart to create the best “basic law” for the country. Mind is the forerunner of all things….

  13. What is wrong with Daw Suu said that she wants to be the President? Listen to the song ” everybody wants to rule the world” Even me I want to be the president, but I don’t have any capibilty or quality or potential to be the president. Daw Suu has these kind of qualities, good leadership, selflessness, hard working, loved by the people, courage, etc. Yes she is daughter of Bogyoke and she has copied all the talents from her father. she is loved by the people not because of her father but people believe that she can lead the country to be a democratic country.

  14. Dear Yebaw , You should never be a Pe Hlawr !

    No matter our mountains are grinding,
    our rivers are drying ,
    And, our people are crying,
    The lady loves to continue copper mining.
    If she becomes a President
    More mountains, rivers and pagodas can be disappeared.
    Do you think she should be cheered?
    Infact, peoples no more love her restless behaviours.
    Sided with Dictators and Cronies went too far.

    • Dear Maung Min Nway,
      Natural resources are to be explored and to be used for the good sake of our people. I am much aware about conservation of the environment. If there is no pain, there is no gain- we should use our own resourcses for us and for our children. Nobody dare to shout, protest and say any thing when the military government cut the woods in Shan Stae and along Thai-Burma border. No people from KayNiDaung copper mine dare to say No to military when they were forced to move from their places. Now, thosusand of heros came out and loudly protest for any kind of exploring the natural resources.

  15. I wanted to said that to you directly now . I try to leave it to you ,but you are always too much to another comment . What is your really point of view ? What is your problem with another people comment ? Why are you try to said such a words like “ Burma’s & Burmese “ ? What the hell with you ?

    I knew you are not Burmese , so am I ? You are showed like angry to other comment , what ‘s wrong with you ? You are not even reading story , you just read other people comment and reply with anger .

    Don’t be overestimate your self as really good in political issue . Please try to comment on story with your opinion and do not disturb to other comment and you don’t have to do it . Irrawaddy Magazine Editor will do his work . Be a good Netizen and try to civilize yourself and you community .

  16. Dear Yebaw,
    Thank you for your reply .
    It is unwise to do anything when damages outweight benefits.
    If Gain is small and pain is big —only idiots will do it.

    Dictators used to give reasons to destroy the society and country just to fulfil their lust.
    Most of the peoples will not argue with gang of thieves and robbers.
    But, dare to say to someone to whom they think he or she is respectable.
    We should appreciate to those who risked their lives for their right.
    It is a sad thing for peoples who were betrayed by someone to whom they believed was a hero
    but did nothing more than a sideshow.

    • Are You still talking about a federal constitution for Myanmar?

      Two points seem important to me.

      1) Federalism has to come before REAL PEACE AND HARMONY WITH THE ETHNIC MINORITIES can arise. The Myanmar majority cannot keep down the minorities by force of arms FOR EVER.

      2) It also has to happen that the armed forces (tat-ma-daw) go back to the barracks. Good governance is not possible by physical force but only by public consensus. In the long run this is the ONLY EFFECTIVE WAY to create a prosperous and peaceful Myanmar.
      The “Nargis constituiton” of 2008 was dictated by the military government. It supports the power of the army not just by 25% non-elected military MPs, but also in other ways again and again. It is like a “wingaba” where all exits lead to the army.
      So will the people love and respect it deep in their hearts, like the citizens of several western countries value and appreciate their basic law (US declaration of independence, German “Grundgesetz”, Magna Charter of UK) ??? This is the advantage of the RAJA-DHAMMA-SANGAHA: by Yaw Min Gyi U Po Hlaing: all his arguments stem from the Burmese Buddhist tradition how a good souvereign should guide the country.

      Start by reading the new constituition and U Po Hlaing’s work? Or by educating the children in peaceful means to solve conflicts, about the world beyond the borders of Myanmar, about the minorities and their land within Myanmar, about Burmese history beyond the three soldier kings shown prominently in the capital?

      Right now, it is necessary to create more clarity financially (reduce bribery and corruption, cronyism), and more security by the rule of law (rob the land of poor farmers and put them into prison, if they complain, as just one example – but ignore the wrong doings of people in authority.).
      If the new developments fail to improve the livelihood of the poor quickly … coca cola alone won’t fill their stomachs, and it also has to be paid for. I have seen many things in Thailand, that I would want Myanmar people to avoid, but they will inevitably come.

      I am worried, when I should be happy, that things are changing for the better …

      I remember Burma in 1960, and I want to cry … about all the unnecessary suffering inflicted on so many people in the last 50 years by stubborness and ignorance of people in authority. “If the roof leaks, the whole house gets wet.”
      While the teaching of Lord Buddha was available all the time, just for the listening. Buddha does not save people, they have to save themselves, by acting on his advice.

    • To Maung Min Nway,

      Myanmar is very fortunate to have a person like the lady, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
      She is a living national treasure, a true national asset. Other countries look at her and wish they had citizens like that.


      But she is only one human being. You have to help her, and understand that she is not perfect, that she cannot solve all the countries problems. Her party has only 43 seats in parliament (7%?), and the elected parliament has no authority whatsoever over the armed forces, even the president does not have it. – The problems in Myanmar have become so big, I am not sure DASSK can tackle them successfully, even if she becomes president in 2015.She will need help.

      But will others do better???
      Thura Shwe Mann was no. 3 under the old government (no.1 and 2 are now retired), he is used to authority, but will he be able to step back and co-operate with the lady, if the USDP is in the opposition, or will he fight against her and diminish her authority???
      The student heroes of the 88 generation will be a very good and strong third force, if they do not want to join the NLD. But the person at the top – if he is not from the army – has to be an expert juggler to balance the different national groups. The student leaders of 1988 do not command the same nation wide respect, when it comes to leading the country.

      Ne Win made the country poor, he suppressed the minorities and the people, but he left Myanmars natural treasures intact. Environmental damage happened mosty during the last twenty years during the Than Shwe adminstration. The country had become poor, so people in authority became more corrupt. Myanmar was put under trade sanctions by western countries, so China and Thailand etc. got chances to exploit the national treasures under conditions of minimum benefit and much trouble for the people of Myanmar. These international contracts are binding and run many years in the future. It is dificult to change them.

      What if – 1) the elections of 2015 are not fair,
      or 2) the NLF wins a landslide victory and DASSK becomes president, but the military fails to transfer power as in 1990,
      or 3) the discontended opposition after losing the vote (or even befoe that) takes to stoking up large scale civil unrest all over the country, not even clearly showing their faces – as is happening now between Buddhist and Muslims.

      Will NLD and DASSK by themselves alone be able to control this??? How????

      Military power is so deeply entrenched in Myanmar, it cannot be removed by confrontation. The lady needs “brave soldiers”, who will help her, intelligent soldiers who understand that force is not the best way to build up the country, and they have to be reassured, that they have a fitting place in the future of Myanmar.
      Whether you like the military or not, whether you like the ethnic minorities or not – they are there, and have to be considered.

      I am quite encouraged, that so many people come forward to do the right thing in Myanmar now – for the sake of the country. This is the spirit of wisdom: good for yourself and others.
      Step warily and try your best.

      • Dear Daw Ohnmar , thanks for the comments, which I consider we as concerned persons ignore at our own peril if we do not take into consideration if we really are committed to , in the body, mind and spirit for a free and democratic Myanmar-Burma . Maybe you made a mental slip, which can be a premonition of the “political dynamics” e merging in Myanmar — the National Lberation Forces (NLF) a united front that was forged within DAB .achieving victory in the 2015 National Election . The present is as history.

  17. Dear Daw Onmar,
    Welcome your comment—-

    I could not love and congratulate even to my mother
    If she destroys my land and pagoda.
    Whatever reasons you give
    History will issue the blacklist.

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