Ethnic Issues

Khun Htun Oo: ‘Without a Guarantee of Equality, How Can We Work Together?’

By Htet Naing Zaw 28 January 2016

Among the many challenges facing the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government will be addressing the political aspirations of Burma’s ethnic nationalities. Federalism was high on the agenda at the recent Union Peace Conference, with some ethnic leaders proposing a system of eight ethnic states to replace the current configuration of seven states and seven divisions. The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw recently spoke with Khun Htun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), about the role of ethnic peoples in building a federal Union.

Do you think a federal system will be introduced to Burma after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi comes to power?

They have made promises and people have also voted for them because they believe in them. We have to wait and see what they will do. They understand well what ethnicities want. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has difficulties. Article 59(f) [of the Constitution, which bars her from the presidency] still can’t be amended. It is not yet clear whether she can assume the presidency. If she doesn’t, how would she be welcomed when she goes to foreign countries? Whether the red carpet should be rolled out for her is open to question. But anyway, her government will be much better than the current one. People have voted for her party with only one thing in mind—they no longer want the current system.

Is it possible to establish a federal Union without changing the 2008 Constitution? 

Impossible. Utterly impossible. There are many reasons. How can we establish a federal Union without changing the fundamental facts related to federalism?

The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) proposed the concept of eight states at the Union Peace Conference. Would it work in practice?

It will if [stakeholders] have the will to do it. In our view, this [lack of federalism] is the reason behind the problems of the country. The Panglong Conference made the same commitment but it has not been realized until now. If guarantees can’t be given, how can we move forward? We are not treated on equal terms. Without a guarantee of equality, how can we work together? Our rep said the same at the Union Peace Conference.

Will the SNLD hold talks with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government on the principle of eight states when it comes to power? Do you think the NLD government will be able to bring about reconciliation with ethnic groups?

We’ll discuss it. Who else are we supposed to hold talks with on this if we do not talk with them? But rather than holding direct talks with [Suu Kyi], we will bring it forward to the parliament. The NLD government will surely work for reconciliation with ethnic people. But I’m afraid there are lots of constitutional hurdles.

The military staged a coup in 1962 on the pretext of saving the country from breaking up. Aren’t you worried that it could intervene again if the system of eight states is introduced? 

I am not worried. The country has become the world’s poorest country because of their intervention. It should do its own duties, and we’ll do our own duties. We need not care.

Won’t you try to convince the military about it?

We have plans. If [the military] comes for talks with us, we’ll discuss it.

Which federal systems has SNLD studied? Have you seen any federal system that is suitable for Burma?

We have studied dozens of federal systems. The best one is of Germany. The system adopted by the US is also good. Rather than choosing the best federal system of the world, we should adopt what is most suitable for us.

There has been an argument in the Parliament that if greater autonomy is given to states, there is no need to introduce a different federal system. Do you accept that view?

It is impossible. They need to re-study the Panglong Agreement. Just study it. Who will do so if there is no equality? Please also take armed groups into consideration. It is not fair to ask us to move ten steps backward just to make one step forward.

I’m afraid it will be difficult to designate a “Burman State” according to the proposed eight-state system. What are we supposed to do with the Dawei and Beik tribes in the Burman ethnic group? And there are also dozens of tribes under the Shan ethnic group.

I have no idea about the Burman ethnic group but for Shan, the Shan Federation could be re-formed. Does the Burmese government’s administrative power have influence on the Wa [Special] Region in Shan State at present? Can it open its offices there? That place has been open for a long time. Aren’t you afraid Burma will meet the same fate as… Crimea? Burman people will make up the majority in a federal system. So, they need not to worry. Regarding the Dawei and Beik tribes you have said, it is up to the Burmese government.

Would you accept if the NLD government offered you a Union-level post?

It depends on terms and conditions. We need to consider if their policies meet what we want. If I accept the post without considering these, problems might arise later if their policies fail to meet our goals.

Do you have any final comments about federalism?

They [the government] talks about 14 units [14 states and divisions], but for us, [the best] federal system would be eight units. No matter what federal system is adopted, it is important that it enshrines equality and self-determination. If not, it is not a federal system. You can have 100 divisions and 100 states in the country, but the most important thing is there must be coordination between upper and lower [administrative] levels. The country has gone through years of hardship because there is no such coordination. The Lower House is for Burman and the Upper House or House of Nationalities or House of Ethnicities is for minorities, for us. Do you know the 1947 constitution? We’ll take according to that constitution. Burmans said one thing before independence and talked another way after independence. That’s why there have been ‘booms-booms-bangs-bangs’ across the country.