Ethnic Leaders Discuss Federal Constitution

By Nyein Nyein 21 March 2016

Leaders of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an ethnic armed group alliance, began a six-day federal constitution drafting workshop on Monday in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

The workshop is being facilitated by the Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center (ENAC), a resource center supporting the peace process through policy development. Through engagement with local and international experts, attendants said that the meeting’s primary discussion will center on the key principles and characteristics of a union constitution.

Nai Hong Sar, the UNFC vice chairman, told reporters that they were preparing themselves for future discussions with political parties and government representatives by brushing up on knowledge of federalism.

“We all are asking for a genuine federal constitution in our country, and so we need to have advanced knowledge about that,” he said.

Sai Kyaw Nyunt, a representative of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) political party coalition and a delegate to the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), also briefed the attendants about federalism discussions in January’s UPDJC meeting.

Throughout the week, experts and leaders in the workshop will explore how federalism in Burma might be structured, through the division of power, the composition of parliament and the establishment of security forces.

One idea which has been put forward in Burma is that of eight states, including seven regions representing various ethnic nationalities, and one designated as central Burma. Currently, Burma has seven ethnic states along the northern, eastern and western parts of the country and seven central ‘divisions,’ which critics say creates an imbalance of power.

Aung Htoo, a human rights lawyer, who heads the Legal Aid Network, said that

equal rights should be guaranteed for residents of all states, to dispel the notion that having one’s own state, demarcated along ethnic lines, is the best solution to Burma’s problems.

There have also been advocates calling for the consideration of more, rather than fewer, states in the country; specifically, representatives from the Wa, Palaung (Ta’ang) and Pa-O requested their own self-administrated states.

“Burma does not need rigid centralization of power,” Aung Htoo added, referencing India as a neighbor practicing the type of federalism from which lessons for Burma could be drawn. “We must build a federal union by allowing the states to have more power,” he said.

Experts at the workshop also credited federal systems in Europe, such as those in Switzerland and Germany, as positive examples for Burma, particularly regarding sovereign state power.

Aung Htoo added that more needs to be done to enhance public understanding of “genuine” federalism, through consultations and a dialogue on ethnic groups’ hopes for the country. Peace building, he explained, should be achieved before undertaking further economic development.

In the final days of the workshop, senior UNFC leaders will share their input for an upcoming federal constitution draft.

The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Kha contributed to this report from Chiang Mai.