Ethnic Affairs Center Publishes Federal Policies to Bring to Negotiating Table

By Lawi Weng 4 October 2016

A draft report outlining federal policies in nine thematic areas was released on Tuesday by the Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center (ENAC), a group working in support of the peace process between ethnic armed organizations and the Burmese government.

Ethnic political parties, ethnic armed group representatives and civil society and community-based organizations were among those who contributed to the development of the policies in the report, which cover health, education, land, natural resources, agriculture, internal displacement, trade and investment, humanitarian aid and taxes.

Two ENAC representatives spoke at a press conference in Rangoon on Tuesday about the draft report, including vice chairman of the United Nationalities Federal Council—an ethnic armed group coalition—Nai Hong Sar, who is also a chairperson within ENAC. Yaw Htung, an ENAC program director, also represented the organization at the event.

“We are trying to solve our political conflict at the [negotiating] table. We are even trying to solve other problems, concerning health and education, and other social issues. So we have issued as a draft report our nine policies which are intended to support our peace process,” said Nai Hong Sar.

These “bottom-up” policies, he explained, are needed in order to move Burma closer to a federal system in which power is shared and equal rights are guaranteed. Rights groups have long criticized current and former government policies as being highly centralized and failing to meet the needs of those in the country’s ethnic states.

ENAC representatives explained that the report will play a crucial role in ethnic armed groups’ and ethnic political parties’ future political dialogue with the Burmese government.

The report is referred to as a draft, they pointed out, because it is a work in progress; future sections could be added, and current policies modified based on advice from the public.

“It is important to have defense and political policies, but we have not done that yet. We are trying to write as many different policies as we can, in order to best solve our conflict,” Nai Hong Sar said.

Ethnic Language Education

Nai Hong Sar spoke at length on the importance of ethnic education, advocating for the central government to allow ethnic nationality children study their mother tongue in school. He described these children as having “great talent” but that it was being used to memorize the Burmese language, rather than explore their other abilities.

Regarding a trial of mother tongue based education, he asked, “what is there to lose?”

Such a movement would help to build unity and trust and could even address the ongoing conflict in Burma, as ethnic minorities have long demanded greater decentralization and autonomy, Nai Hong Sar said.

He cited Singapore as an example of a prosperous country that teaches three languages, in addition to English: Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. The ENAC chairperson also reminded reporters at the event of the struggle undertaken by Burman students to study Burmese when the country was under British rule. Yet after Burma gained its independence from Britain, the Burmese government did not allow smaller ethnic groups to study their own languages.

“Some Burmese did not sympathize with our ethnic groups. They should understand our feelings. Our ethnic people carried out armed revolution, as we did not get anything when we asked for our rights,” said Nai Hong Sar.

Critics of the plan say that implementing an ethnic language education program would be too costly, as well as complicated, since some groups speak more than one dialect.

But ENAC Program Director Yaw Htung said that language in education is a rights issue.

“If they say the government has to spend a lot of budget, this will mean that they have not accepted human rights,” he said.

Nai Hong Sar echoed this sentiment.

“This is not a problem for the government—[such groups] have to solve their own problems, and they will know how. You should give them their rights first; you should not block it. Then, they will solve it on their own,” he said.