Aung Htoo: ‘Equality’ and the Demand For a Federal Union

By Lawi Weng 1 August 2016

Aung Htoo is a human rights lawyer who has worked for many years on ideas and challenges concerning federalism in Burma, and on the creation of a draft federal constitution. He founded the Legal Aid Network in 2012, which established the Federal Law Academy in Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State in 2014, to provide legal and constitutional education to ethnic youth.

Aung Htoo talked to The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Lawi Weng on the sidelines of last week’s summit of ethnic armed group leaders in Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State.

Ethnic delegates discussed the draft constitution produced in 2008 by the Federal Constitution Drafting and Coordination Committee (FCDCC). That draft envisages that the country would have eight states, instead of the current seven, with the addition being a Bamar (Myanmar) ethnic state incorporating some of the existing divisions. For many ethnic people, this is a question of equality. What is your view?

My view is that it is a necessity. Over the course of history, ethnic nationalities have lived independently in this country. Powerful Myanmar kings established Myanmar empires during some historical periods, but basically, other ethnic nationalities lived independently until the British colonized the country.

We need to consider the historical background of our country. The 40-year war between Mon and Myanmar [from 1384 to 1424] is a significant chapter in this. Arakanese people formerly lived independently. So did Kachin and Shan people. The British could not even colonize the Karenni.

So, we were not previously a unitary state. We formed what became the union together [after independence]. Look at the Panglong Agreement: ethnic nationalities, including Myanmar, formed the union together. Ethnic nationalities at that time enjoyed the right to reject General Aung San’s proposals, and to remain under British rule. Actually, if they had so chosen, with the option to claim back independence later, their status would have been much better than it became under military rule.

In any case, it has now become a necessity to build a genuine union. The fundamental part of that is equality. Equality among the various ethnic nationalities must be established.

You have said that there is a problem with the concept of ‘divisions’ [or ‘regions’] in a federal system. What do you mean?

The principle of seven divisions [and seven states] was created by General Ne Win. From 1990 to 2004, when I was involved in the long process of drafting a federal constitution, we discussed how to solve the problem of ‘divisions,’ since really these do not fit into a federal system. Finally, we proposed that a union should have just two types of states—‘national states’ and ‘nationalities states.’

‘National states’ means eight states: Karen, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Arakan, Karenni, Chin and Myanmar. This principle of eight states was adopted at the Taunggyi conference on constitutional matters in 1961. Other territories, such as Sagaing, Irrawaddy and Tenasserim divisions [which have large ethnic minority as well as Myanmar populations], would be ‘nationalities states.’

We discussed these matters at a recent workshop organized by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). An American professor there pointed out that in a union, if a state is too large, it is difficult to control. He cited the example of Nigeria. The northern part of the country takes up about 60 percent of the national territory and is very difficult to control.

I responded to the effect that there is no one-type-fits-all federal system. We have to be creative depending on the situation. If, for example, Irrawaddy, Sagaing and Tenasserim divisions become ‘nationalities’ states, the [remaining] Myanmar State would not be too large.

The Panglong Agreement allowed ethnic signatories [representing the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic nationalities] to secede from the union ten years after signing. If some ethnic groups made a similar demand during the upcoming peace conference slated for August, would the Burma Army allow it?

We will be able to do nothing if we are afraid that the Myanmar military leaders will be dissatisfied. That would mean we could only yield to military rule. Ethnic nationalities can’t accept this. If we are over-concerned about whether or not the military will agree, it will bring us nothing and we will not be able to solve the root cause of the problem.

The Myanmar Army today lacks strong leadership. Gen Ming Aung Hlaing is not as strong as Than Shwe. The fighting power of the military is the lowest in its history. They can’t annihilate any of the armed groups—the Kokang [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army], the Ta’ang National Liberation Army or the Arakan Army. Quite the opposite: those groups have grown bigger while fighting the Myanmar Army.

The Myanmar Army needs to understand and correctly assess its own situation. Meanwhile, we need to make our voices heard. Ethnic youth need to know what their rights are, and speak up boldly for those rights. We have advantages that we did not have 50 years ago. When we were young, talking about federalism was a crime. But now they [the Myanmar Army leaders] have to admit that federalism is essential for our country.

What about Shan State, in relation to the FCDCC?

Shan groups uphold the eight-state principle. But I think they won’t oppose the idea of ‘nationalities states’ if a genuine federal union is to be built.

The Shan have used the term ‘the federated Shan States’ for their state. My late friend Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, the son of the Saopha of Yawnghwe Sao Shwe Thaik, explained federalism like this: suppose there is a village and there are houses in the village; each house has its own compound; some compounds are bigger than others, and some have more than one house—this is what Shan State is like. It will be a smaller federation inside a bigger federation.

So would the Wa, Palaung [Ta’ang] and other ethnic groups get their own territory inside Shan State?

Right now, there are no fences. The Myanmar Army built a big house and took control of everything. The other houses do not have power. So each wants to get close to the center, which controls absolute power. This has to be changed to a system in which every house in the village has sovereignty to a reasonable extent. There should no longer be rigid centralization, although centralization to a degree necessary for the maintenance of a federal union should be sought.

Ethnic leaders have proposed establishing ‘pyi-htaung’ (sovereign) states. I like that terminology; there should be sovereign states. Those sovereign states would have sovereignty, but they would delegate some degree of their sovereign power to the federal government.

Federalism should be based on the idea that the central [federal] government is just a created entity and that states have intrinsic sovereignty. Then, power would shift from the central [government] to the states, which could solve their own problems.

Regarding Shan State, in Chiang Mai we have discussed creating units—by which I mean, within the state there could be a Shan national territory, a Kachin national territory, a Ta’ang national territory and a Wa national territory. Places where Shan, Kachin and Ta’ang live together could be joint administrative zones. There would be two parliaments based on those units—the House of the People and the House of Nationalities. I believe this would work.

What are the new government’s views on federalism, in your view?

Going by what we have learned from leaders close to the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we are very sure that the NLD has no written document, approved by their central executive committee, containing their definition of federalism or the principles of a future Myanmar federal union. They are just talking about federalism in an ad hoc way. I am not criticizing the NLD, but the truth is that they don’t have a written document about federalism.