Finding a Federal Model that Fits

Myanmar, Burma, ethnic conflict, peace process, Burma Army, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Mon, politics

There are many forms of federalism in the world, but only one really matches Burma’s needs: India.

There is a reason why peace talks between the government and Myanmar’s ethnic resistance armies are not going anywhere: The two sides are fundamentally at odds over what they hope to achieve.

What the government wants is a “nationwide ceasefire” first, after which it will be up to the individual groups to convert their respective organizations into political parties, contest elections and then, if elected, discuss political issues in Parliament.

The non-Bamar ethnic groups, for their part, want a political dialogue to begin before they sign any nationwide ceasefire agreement. Even more importantly, they see the peace process as the first step towards re-establishing the federal structure Myanmar had before the military seized power in 1962 and abolished the 1947 Constitution.

However, the military—which stands behind the government—sees federalism as a first step toward disintegration of the country, and, therefore, unacceptable. Certain political issues can be discussed in Parliament, but “non-disintegration” of the country is one of six basic principles enshrined in the 2008 Constitution.

On the other hand, the ethnic resistance groups have not articulated their demand for federalism either. What kind of federal union would they want Myanmar to be? How should power be divided between the states and the central government? And what exactly is the “federal army” some of the groups have begun talking about? Unless those issues have been made clear, there is little or no hope of the military changing its mind about federalism.

Many models have been mentioned: the United States, Canada, Germany, and even multi-ethnic Malaysia. The United States has a federal system, but it is not based on ethnicity, which is what Myanmar’s ethnic groups are demanding. There is no Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Polish, Mexican, Chinese or Italian state in the US. The states there are purely geographical entities where a multitude of different peoples live.

Canada has a province with a French-speaking majority, Quebec, and the country has two official languages, English and French. In 1999, the predominantly Inuit-speaking parts of the Northwest Territories became a new territory, Nunavut, and there are other autonomous areas in Canada. But, by and large, Canada, like the US, is a country made up of various groups of immigrants and it is not a federal state based on ethnicity.

Malaysia is multi-ethnic, but there is no Malay, Chinese or Indian state in that federation. Malaysia’s federalism is based on the traditional Malay sultanates and some former British colonies and protectorates. But there are different ethnic groups living in all 13 Malaysian states. This is similar to the Federal Republic of Germany, which is made up of old kingdoms and principalities that were united in the late 19th century, except that the resulting nation-state was, and still is, overwhelmingly German in its ethnic composition.

There are, in fact, very few federations that are—or rather were—based along ethnic or linguistic lines. One was the former Soviet Union, which was dissolved in 1991. Another was Yugoslavia, which fell apart in the 1990s following bitter wars between the country’s different ethnic groups. A third would be Belgium, which has only two major ethnic groups—the Dutch-speaking Flemish people and the French-speaking people of Wallonia—and a smaller German-speaking community in the east. But even with such few ethnic groups, Belgium has had immense problems maintaining its unity, let alone forming functioning central governments.

So are there any successful models Myanmar could follow? There seems to be only one: India. India has 28 states and seven union territories, and although the Indian constitution does not mention “federation” or “federalism,” the basic structure of the country is federal. India’s constitution has three lists that empower the union and the states to legislate on various matters. For instance, each state has an elected legislative assembly, its own official language and its own police force. But defense is the responsibility of the central government. India has ethnic units in its armed forces, but it is not a “federal army”; it is all under central command. Any other model would be unworkable. The third list contains issues where both the union and the various states can legislate. It is a fine balance, but despite all India’s internal ethnic conflicts, it is working. Unlike the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, India has not fallen apart, nor is at as dysfunctional as Belgium.

But if Myanmar is going to follow the Indian model, be prepared for all the problems that would entail. There is not a single state or region in Myanmar that has only one ethnic group. There are frictions between Shans and Kachins in Kachin as well as Shan State; the Pa-O rebellion in Myanmar broke out in the 1950s, not against the central government but the dominance of the Shan sawbwas. The United Wa State Army, which is active in northeastern and eastern Shan State, wants a separate state for its people. And while there is a Mon State, the Mon people are perhaps the most assimilated of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups.

Myanmar’s 1947 Constitution, its first, could serve as a basis for discussion, but little more. Its most controversial clause is in Chapter X: The Right of Secession, which said that “every State shall have the right to secede from the Union” after 10 years of independence from British colonial rule. But other clauses stipulate that this right does not apply to Kayin or Kachin states, so it was only Shan State and Kayah State that could, at least in theory, secede from the Union. In any case, the clause was not meant to be exercised, but was put there to make the then proposed Union of Myanmar more palatable for the non-Bamar peoples to join. The Mon, Chin and Rakhine states were not established until 1974, and therefore not covered by the 1947 Constitution.

Nor did the new constitution that was adopted in 1974 have any provisions for federalism or regional autonomy—all that had disappeared after the 1962 military takeover. The 2008 Constitution is not federal in nature either. There is no difference between the states and the regions, and regional and state hluttaws do not have nearly as much power as, for instance, India’s state legislatures or those of non-ethnic federations such as the United States or Canada.

So what could a federal Myanmar look like? When the government embarked on its peace plan in 2009, the ethnic resistance armies were invited to become “border guard forces”—but that was a very ill-conceived idea. Border security in nearly all countries is the responsibility of the central government. In India’s northeastern states, adjacent to Myanmar, border security is in the hands of the paramilitary Assam Rifles, which is under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi. There are also other centrally controlled border guard forces, and sometimes local police may assist but not be responsible for border security.

On the other hand, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and other Indian states have their own armed police forces that are under the command of their respective state governments. If that system was adopted, the Kachin Independence Army or the Shan State Army could be absorbed into a Kachin State or Shan State Armed Police Force, but not into locally commanded “border guard forces,” which could easily degenerate into bands of border bandits and smugglers.

The Myanmar government and the country’s armed resistance groups need to find a model that works, and the most viable solution would be to study the Indian model. It is also important to remember that when the Shans, the Kachins and the Chins signed the Panglong Agreement with U Aung San on Feb. 12, 1947, it was clearly stated that “full autonomy in internal administration is accepted in principle.” That was the principle upon which an independent Myanmar was founded, and it is still the only solution that would satisfy the aspirations of the country’s non-Bamar ethnic groups.

Bertil Lintner is a journalist and author of numerous books on Myanmar and Asia.

This story first appeared in the March 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

7 Responses to Finding a Federal Model that Fits

  1. The most important part lacking here is formation of TRUST between the ethnic lines. Burmese majority by the virtue of the fascist Military regime had tarnish their name. No ethnic minority will trust the Burmese. It is all about arrogance and aggression of Burmese towards the minority. U Aung San had single handedly brought the Pinlon Agreement with the Ethnic brothers and ushered in the independent for Burma within a year. It is not Magic. It is the honesty, trustworthiness and leadership ability of U Aung San, all of the ethnic leaders believe when he spoke and wrote in the 1947 constitution. It was Mission Impossible in 1947-48. Now it can be negotiated by the responsible and trustworthy Chairman of NLD, Daw Aung San Su Kyi. The military got no role to play in this sensitive issue. If the political leader of Burma treat the whole country as if they were her children, which ethnic minority would like to break away from the happy family union.
    The TRUST and TENDERLOVING KINDNESS only can bind the union as solid as diamond. Fear of breaking of union is the main theme of the Fascist Military Regime because, by default, they could not trust anyone. The General lack the sense of security, afraid of people, and self destructive individuals is exact nature of them. How can one goes into negotiation with no regard to the views of others but only interested in imposing his/her views on others? This is not the table manner to earn respect and trust from the others. Burma need the federal system plus democracy, trust and happiness. The multi-cultural- racial-religions vibrant democracy is the only guarantee for Burma to come out as the proud nation in the world.

    • 100%agree with ye win in his opinion. Those military generals are low born, low education and low moral and low ethical principle so they have no right to say regarding to this federalism issue. DASSK for bama side, Kachin army chief, Gun Maw and others respectable ethnics activities should deal with this important matter. Bama military should be put aside in this political issue. Military role is to defense the foreign invasion only and listen to people elected president, not to fox hand-pick, puppet thein sein.
      Then, all ethnics only trust bama civilian politicians, like DASSK, Ming Ko naing and U win tin, not trust bama military connected cronies or relatives or idiot Buddhist monks,particularly wirathu.

  2. First of all, why do we have to copy other country political idea and their way of dealing with difficulties? Should we India politic or should we study FEDERALISM? By the way, India is not the only Ethno Federal state in this world. There are a few more ethno federal states exist in this world. If we think federalism can cause problems to Burma, we should study federalism as much as possible instead of studying what is Indian government doing in India. Interesting enough, Ethiopia also is a federal state. Former Ethiopian prime minister reply to critics about Ethno Federalism is a very good answer and I like to share it here. “If you think that Ethnic Federalism is a threat, it will be…. if you think that it is a benefit and than it will be. Aristotle once said “We are what we do”. I also believe that we do what we believe. Although Burma is a country with different ethnic groups, Burma can prosper with federalism. I learn many political philosophies and I found only federalism states clearly of sharing power and wealth equally of the state. If Federalism is a threat to a nation so is democracy, monarchy, tyranny, and military dictatorship as well. Every political idea is a threat to some one. If Burma should be aware of Federalism’s good and evil, Burma should know all about Federalism, inside and out start from USA, Canada, Germany, Australia, Austria, and many more federalist countries. For me, Burma suit Canadian style federalism more than Indian federalism. The differences is that Burmese people need to be as mature as Canadian are. Burmese people need to be educated as well, so that they will not take any opinion as correct instead of using their own judgement.

  3. We all know that how the Union of Burma founded. Panglong Agreement must not be forgotten or ignored. We have to base our discussion on that idea and agreement. The Rakhine State, the Mon State and the Karen State must have equal right as the Chin, the Kachin, the Shan and the Kayah State were guaranteed. Bertil Lintner’s point on USA comparing with Union of Burma makes nonsense. Italians do not have their own territory. The Germans and so on, none have their own even the British. In the Union of Burma, ethnics do have their own lands and territories since day one. Aung San was not an idiot when he led forming the Union of Burma at Panglong.

    • Shwe Yoe wrote “In the Union of Burma, ethnics do have their own lands and territories since day one.”
      If so, all ethnics in Burma have more and more autonomy, in term of self-administration, own army and etc, compared to other types of federalism.
      In this regards, DASSK and other opposition should unilaterally seek all ethnics to discuss this matter fairly and squarely according to Panglong agreement ultimately to reach the suitable type or term of federalism for future with the total exclusion of puppet thein sein government, fox than shwe and child soldier ming aung hlaing. There is no law to prevent someone to meet the all ethnics activities or representatives in Burma. If fox rejects this meeting, China, US, EU, Korean and Japan should put pressure on fox for the sake of all ordinary Burmese. If all honor the panglong treaty, all are simple and are not complicated as there are a lot of model of federalism to have suitable Burmese way of federalism, not bama way or Buddhist way of federalism.

  4. Thank to Bertil Lintner for his research and opinion-
    What kinds of federalism which it is fit or not is not the important or crucial now. The main point is whether fox than shwe does honor or not honor Panglong agreement. It means there is an autonomy for ethnics in Panlong treaty. If fox does agree or honor Panglong agreement sincerely , many kinds of model of federalism will be came out easily and readily for discussion and then, make implementation before any kinds of cease-fire agreement. Cease-fire agreements are already signed by fox than shwe but any changes of name of government make this cease-fire agreement invalid. In this regards, all ethnics lost trust on fox and his private bama army. If fox still is continuing to seek free-lunch and bamanization on all ethnics, there is no federalism and no nationalism as well as no solution. Then, all ethnics will adhere to future giant rich China, instead of both cruel bama military and racist, psy wirathu , like happening in Ukraine ultimately from the all ethnics’ unity. Ethnic lives will be more better under the rules of rich neighbor China. Likewise, most of the domestic helpers want to work in rich Hong Kong and Singapore.
    Therefore, i totally agree with the following points the respectable author B L mentioned in his opinion.
    Bertil Lintner wrote “It is also important to remember that when the Shans, the Kachins and the Chins signed the Panglong Agreement with U Aung San on Feb. 12, 1947, it was clearly stated that “full autonomy in internal administration is accepted in principle.” That was the principle upon which an independent Myanmar was founded, and it is still the only solution that would satisfy the aspirations of the country’s non-Bamar ethnic groups.” This is the principle of federalism to find the suitable one for Burma.
    Do not forget to claim for compensation for all ethnics as well from the wrong doing of bama military rules, including Late U nu in case of abusing or dishonoring Panglong treaty.

  5. I’m a little sad that he is so mad at me. Since he is from a neighboring tribe that we have lived in peace with for centuries.

    But after reading the article so I can better understand it.

    The Indian model has some errors. The political discussion takes place among a small English-speaking minority. And the large majority of dalits have no political power. Women’s position can be compared to the animals. This means that a cow is worth more than a woman.

    Northeast India in many ways similar to Burma, there are 70 active insurgent groups. What Bertil Lintner wants is to create more smaller rebel groups.

    There are two countries that he forgets to mention. Denmark and Switzerland.

    Denmark has two autonomous territories. With a majority of an ethnic minority. They try well enough both to break away. But it’s hard to get economic and bureaucracy is expensive. Faroe Islands were at one time in financial difficulties because their parliament was elected in their own village, and thus they fought for their village survival, at the expense of the community. There after, a constituency, but so were the villages forgotten. Once you have selected the election form then you have also determined the development direction.

    Switzerland has four languages​​, and 23 states. The three languages ​​are also spoken in neighboring countries. But this is no problem because everyone would rather be an important part of Switzerland than remove one edge of the neighboring countries.

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