How Will Myanmar’s Ethnicities Shape Its Future?

By The Irrawaddy 23 March 2019

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the role of ethnicities in building a federal Union, internal peace and amending the Constitution. Joint Secretary 2 Sai Kyaw Nyunt of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and technical adviser Salai Issac Khin of the Gender and Development Institute join me to discuss this. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Nei.

Shan State is important for Myanmar in establishing federalism because various ethnicities such as the Shan, Palaung, Wa, Kachin and Lisu reside in the state, and there are areas administered by ethnic armed groups, the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] and the government, as well as areas contested by ethnic armed groups. And I recently heard that the SNLD has shifted its focus away from the Shan ethnic group to all of Shan State in its policies. How will the SNLD’s new policies approach Chin State?

Sai Kyaw Nyunt: It was not that our party was intended only for the Shan ethnic group. Its name is “Shan Nationalities”, which means all the nationalities in Shan State. Non-Shan ethnic individuals have held senior positions in the SNLD. Our party only appeared to be working for the Shan ethnic group after the recent mushrooming of ethnicity-based parties in [the trend toward] what we call identity politics. But then we had planned to shift our focus to a state-based approach. Though we could have established a separate country under the Atlantic Charter, we decided to join [Myanmar proper] as a federated Shan State. So, the state-based approach is our original policy. We acknowledge the need to re-establish [the notion of] a federated Shan State in which many ethnic groups such as the Pa-O, Palaung, Lisu and Akha reside, so that ethnic parties or armed groups can take steps forward to peace. We also recognize the need to take a policy-based approach. We need a policy to determine how to link ourselves and collaborate with the rest of the Union. So, we believe we have to take a state-based and policy-based approach to be able to cooperate with all the other non-Shan ethnic groups.

YN: What is interesting to me is how negotiations can be used to build a federal Union amid the rise of identity politics. Speaking of Chin State, it is situated in a remote area close to the Indian border. I believe that ethnic Chin people love the country of Myanmar as much as Burmans do, because Chin people played an important part in the independence struggle. My question is how can Chin people strike a balance between identity politics and their love for their country?

Salai Issac Khin: Speaking of Chin State, we need to go back to the time around 1947, 1948. What is known as Chin State today was called Chin Special Division after independence. The division was formed according to three agreements, firstly the Panglong Agreement. Falam, Hakha and Tedim signed the Panglong Agreement. And the areas known today as Mindat and Kanpetletirr were incorporated in 1947 under the Chin-Bamar friendship agreement in cooperation with the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) to gain independence together, and Paletwa was incorporated under the decision reached by the Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry. So, the area known today as Chin State is not just based on the Panglong Agreement, but on all three of those. Though we can’t call ourselves a federated Chin State, Chin Special Division was founded according to the 1947 Constitution. What we then called Chin Hills, we call Chin State today; it stretched into Mizoram. However, Chin people decided to join, and those areas became Chin Special Division. Speaking of federalism, we need to go back to the 1947 agreement. We wanted to see development and improved road infrastructure, but through self-administration. Historically, we practiced self-administration though we were a poor area. When we decided to gain independence together with the Bamar government, our expectation was development. To establish federalism, there are two preconditions for us. We Chin people want an appropriate status according to the Panglong Agreement. This is to be negotiated between the Chin people in Chin State. Another issue concerns Chin people who live outside Chin State; for example, there are Chin populations in Rakhine State, Magwe and Sagaing regions. There should be extra-territorial obligations. We’d like to ensure a situation in which issues related to Chin people are not directly handled by local governments of the areas they are living in, but rather that the Chin State government has a greater say in handling them. When the country becomes a federal Union sometime in the future, we envision a Chin State government that doesn’t just have authority within the territory of Chin State, but has authority and a say [regarding] the Chin people living outside Chin State within the territory of the Union.

YN: Ethnic issues that have existed since Myanmar gained independence have yet to be settled. Ethnic parties and armed groups have consistently demanded federalism, saying it is the only answer to ethnic issues. Recently, the idea of confederation was presented. Shan State has an important part to play, as the United Wa State Army, which is based in Shan State, demanded confederation, and its ethnic allies also appeared to support it. Saya Sai Kyaw Nyunt, what is your view on confederation and federation? How can these two be adjusted?

SKN: Shan State is a complicated, highly diverse area. We can’t neglect the history in assessing these. The federated Shan State was founded in 1922. The Shan State Act was adopted in 1888 after the British occupied [Burma]. According to that act, Shan State included parts of Kachin State and Sagaing, which was previously called Upper Chindwin. And federated Shan State was founded in 1922, excluding Wa State. Wa State was part of Shan State under the 1888 Act, according to hard copies of documents. Though it is said that Wa State is inside Shan State, or inside this country, we don’t have jurisdiction over it. There are no government offices there, and Myanmar currency is not used there. They already have a status without demanding it. They are just stressing it to legitimize their status. They want a legitimate status. Taking a look at the structure of the country, there were four colonies—Burma proper, federated Shan State, and Kachin and Chin. Despite its independent status, circumstances forced the Karenni to join [in gaining independence together]. So, from the very beginning, we decided to gain independence together and not separately, which was somewhat of a confederation. The constitution drafted by General Aung San and submitted to the preliminary conference of the AFPFL can be seen as federal, but when it was adopted in 1947, it was not federal at all. It was a unitary state disguised as federal. In the beginning, it was somewhat of a confederation, but when the constitution was adopted, it was not federal. It was not federal from the very beginning. My view is that the problems will be solved only when genuine federalism is established. Current leaders’ views on federalism are different from those of previous leaders. According to the perceptions of the previous leaders, the stronger give guarantees to the weaker. The right to separation was granted if the weaker felt that they were suppressed and they no longer wanted to live with the stronger. But the political perceptions of today’s leaders are different. They do not view things from the perspectives of political magnanimity and political guarantees. As they take an authoritative approach; [some ethnic groups] doubt if they really want federalism. Some ethnicities and groups will look at other ways out when they feel they are bound to be suppressed in the current system. As a result, the attention has shifted to confederation. Thke Wa and Rakhine [Arakan Army] have talked about their desires for confederation. Perhaps, more groups will consider it. If we want to be a united single entity, genuine federalism must be implemented.

YN: I think self-determination and equality are major factors at play. Ethnicities have consistently demanded federalism. Saya Issac Khin, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has taken steps to amend the 2008 Constitution. A committee has been formed to draft amendments to the Constitution. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has proposed amending Article 261 of the Constitution, saying it is essential for the transformation to federalism. And the Myanmar Army has also supported amending it. Do ethnicities think amending Article 261 will pave the way for establishing federalism?

SIK: They say the country will be federal by amending Article 261. But I don’t think so. In my opinion, this is another challenge. What we want to amend is the essence of the 2008 Constitution. Just amending it to allow local legislatures to elect their own chief ministers, and not amending the essence, will create further vulnerability. I don’t mean I don’t like the idea of amending Article 261. I do, but I have concerns. This is because the NLD, not the USDP, was the first party to propose amending Article 261. NLD lawmaker Daw Khin San Hlaing submitted in November 2014 the proposal to amend the article. That time, both the military and the USDP raised objections to it. And this time, that article is already on the NLD’s list for charter amendment. The USDP has proposed amending Article 261 alone. But the article can’t be amended alone. There are related matters in Article 264. Amending Article 261 will allow local legislatures to elect their own chief ministers. And Article 264 grants the President the authority to dismiss them. So if we are to amend Article 261, we also need to think about Article 264. But what non-Bamar ethnicities want is not separate amendments, but to amend the essence, for example [to support] civilian supremacy, or to put the military under civilian control. This is not an ethnic issue, but a problem of Myanmar. Looking at the reasons why the military has staged frequent coups, we find that ethnic issues are the main reason. Unless and until the essence of the Constitution is amended to ensure political and security guarantees for all ethnicities including the Bamar, amending provisions like Article 261 won’t work. Another thing that is risky is, suppose Article 261 is amended and the chief minister is elected for Chin State by the party that won the majority there. But then, another party may win at the Union level. So, we are very worried about the relations between the two. We don’t know whether or not the Union-level party will treat the state-level party as equals, listen to its opinions and support its plans.  Amending Article 261 alone can’t provide sufficient political guarantees. What we want is a broader guarantee that goes beyond Article 261. Personality is not important, but policy is. What we want is a change in policy, not in the persons in power. But I don’t mean to say that I don’t want Article 261 being amended—I support amending it. But only when more important things are changed will amending Article 261 be meaningful.

YN: Saya Sai Kyaw Nyunt, what else would you like to say regarding Article 261?

SKN: Most of the points have been covered by Ko Salai Issac Khin. But as 25 percent of seats in local parliaments are reserved for military lawmakers, the amending of Article 261 will make things worse. This will grant executive power to the military at the regional level in addition to the Union level. We can accept amending Article 261 if that 25 percent [guarantee for the military] is removed from the parliament. Another way to avoid this is to directly elect chief ministers in polls by local people. If that were the case, we would happily accept amending the article.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!