Ethnic Armed Group Leaders Discuss Formation of a Burman State

By Lawi Weng 27 July 2016

MAI JA YANG, Kachin State — On the second day of a summit in Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State, ethnic armed group leaders discussed a draft constitution which proposes a single Burman state within a federal union.

Currently, Burma is made up of seven ethnic states—named for the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan—and seven divisions. The proposed change is to combine three of these divisions—in which the majority population in most regions is thought to be Burman—to form a single Burman state. Ethnic minority leaders believe that this will foster more equitable political representation and sharing of resources.

While data from the 2014 census on the size of Burma’s ethnic populations has yet to be released, Burmans, or “Bamar,” have long been considered to comprise around 60 percent of the national population.

Nai Hong Sar, vice chairman of the ethnic armed group coalition United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), explained that ethnic minority leaders have difficulty accepting the current constitutional allowance for Burmans to retain political “control” over seven regions in the country and be allocated what he says are a larger share of resources.

“They [the Burmans] get seven kyats, but our ethnic group has only one state and we will get only one kyat,’’ he said, in an allusion to the famous remark by Gen Aung San in 1947 to the effect that if Burmans received one kyat, ethnic minority groups would receive the same. ‘‘Therefore, we cannot accept their constitution,” Nai Hong Sar added, explaining how he feels the controversial 2008 Constitution marginalizes ethnic minorities.

“Based on our current draft, Mandalay, Magwe and Pegu [divisions] will become a state for Burmans,” he said, adding that, “We all should all be equal.”

Ethnic armed group leaders adopted a draft federal constitution in Feb. 2008, after forming the Federal Constitution Drafting and Coordinating Committee (FCDCC). Burma’s current constitution—also ratified in 2008—was written by the country’s former military government and ratified by a nationwide referendum widely considered fraudulent.

The constitution has been extensively criticized for entrenching the armed forces’ presence in the legislature, for barring now-State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, and for granting little autonomy to ethnic states.

Burma’s seven divisions are listed in the 2008 Constitution as Rangoon, Sagaing, Magwe, Mandalay, Irrawaddy, Pegu and Tenasserim. The FCDCC recommends that Rangoon, Sagaing, Tenasserim and Irrawaddy divisions—which have large ethnic minority populations—instead become what they term as “nationalities states.”

Nai Soe Myint, a senior leader from Mon National Party agreed with the proposed change. “For example, the ethnic Chin nationality lives [also] in Sagaing Division. The division does not only have Burman people. This is why we will call Sagaing a ‘nationalities state,’” he said.

Gen Bee Htoo, chief of the Karenni National Progressive Party and a senior UNFC leader, said that a federal system “based on nationalities” would solve many of the country’s problems stemming from what has long been perceived as Burman domination of political affairs, institutions and culture.

Not all were in agreement, however. The Restoration Council of Shan State—whose armed wing is known as the Shan State Army-South, and claims defend ethnic Shan interests—objected to the idea of Shan State being called a “nationalities state.” Shan State covers a large area of exceptional pluralism—in addition to the Shan it is home to considerable numbers of ethnic Palaung (Ta’ang), Pa-O, Wa and Kachin, among many other groups, and a significant population of Chinese descent.

Three groups absent from the meeting were the United Wa State Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army—all of which are active in Shan State, leading some ethnic delegates, including Bee Htoo, to recommend further discussion for a future “nationalities state” in the region. Other ethnic leaders present at the summit have suggested centering future talks around a “federal Shan State” instead, but clarified that such discussions remain in the early stages.

Naw Zipporah Sein, the vice chairperson of the Karen National Union (KNU), said that additional changes have been made to the FCDCC’s alternative draft constitution up through 2015.

“We will discuss and analyze the draft today. Then, if we need to, we could add more to it and approve it at this meeting,” she said on Tuesday at the Mai Ja Yang summit.

She added that the representatives from 17 groups present at the event would focus on discussing how to most effectively participate in the upcoming Union Peace Conference—slated to be held in late August in Naypyidaw.

“It is important for us to establish common ground,” Zipporah Sein said. “One group alone cannot build a federal union, or peace. We will only succeed in reaching our goal when all groups are included: political parties, democratic forces, and our armed forces,” she said.

The UNFC’s Nai Hong Sar said that current events have forced the Burma Army, which has long opposed the political aspirations of ethnic nationalities, to be more open to their demands.

“In the past, the Burma Army was opposed to federalism, but not anymore—they accept it now. They are worried that our ethnic groups will secede from the country. But no one is asking to secede—we just ask for our future federal system to have democracy, equal rights and self-determination. We just ask for this,” he said.

This article has been slightly amended to include the reference to Gen Aung San’s 1947 remark on Burman/ethnic relations.