NAYPYIDAW — Burma is considering adopting a federal system to end the conflicts with the country’s numerous ethnic armed groups, a top government minister said on Thursday.
Union Minister Soe Thane cited the federalist system in use in Germany, as a possible model. “We are thinking about what you have said — federalism,” in response to a question posed during a debate with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, staged by the BBC at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Burma’s capital Naypyidaw.
Many of Burma’s myriad ethnic minority militias and their associated political parties have long sought a federalist Burma, citing the 1947 Panglong agreement in which Burma’s independence hero General Aung San pledged to devolve power to some of the country’s larger ethnic groups.
However a military coup in 1962 put paid to those aspirations, with the army believing that federalism would lead to secession by ethnic minority regions, which are some of Burma’s most resource-rich areas.
“In 1962, people were afraid of federalism,” said Soe Thane earlier on Thursday.
In the intervening decades civil wars have sputtered on across Burma’s borderland regions, close to China, Thailand and India, though a series of tentative ceasefire agreements have been signed between the government and the armed ethnic groups, the most recent of which came about last week, in Myitkina, the regional capital of Kachin State in Burma’s north, where fighting since June 2011 has left over 100,000 people homeless.
However some say that more than administrative changes are needed to bring about lasting peace in Burma.
Historian and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) Thant Myint U said that Burma needs to build a more inclusive identity that transcends ethnic differences.
“It should not just about Burmans versus ethnic minorities,” he told the WEF meeting on Thursday, warning that Burma’s ethnic rivalries could undermine the current political and economic transition. “It is critical for us all to get beyond ethnic identities,” he exhorted.
National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire in recent months for her apparent reluctance to discuss ethnic conflict and sectarian abuses in Burma, particularly attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority, the majority of whom are stateless and live in Burma’s western Arakan state.
“I have not been silent, I cannot doctor my answers to please everyone,” she said today.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma in recent decades, while over 100,000 have been driven from their homes since mid-2012 during bouts of violence in Arakan state. There the local state administration now seeking to revive an old law limiting Rohingya, who are labeled Bengali immigrants by the Burmese government, to two children per family.
Suu Kyi said recently that this amounted to discrimination, and today, she advocated that Burma’s controversial 1982 citizenship law, which curtails Rohingya’s rights, be looked at. “We must reassess the 1982 citizenship law to see if it is line with international norms,” she said.
During the discussion, the BBC played a recording of a recent interview with Rohingya politician Abu Tahay of the Union National Development Party, who the BBC said was denied access to the WEF meeting in Naypyidaw. Tahay pleaded with Suu Kyi to speak up on behalf of his people, who he described as oppressed.
During a wide-ranging discussion covering politics, the economy, history, and ethnic relations, Soe Thane and Suu Kyi were joined on stage by former political prisoner Zin Mar Aung, while other prominent Burmese public figures spoke from the audience, including Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann.
Asked whether Burma’s military would accept a reduced political role in the future, a key opposition demand, Shwe Mann said: “That depends on the constitution.”
Aung San Suu Kyi today re-stated her call for the 2008 constitution to be revised—changes that if implemented in time, could enable her become President if her party wins the 2015 election. She is currently barred from the Presidency due to her sons holding British passports.
“But if I pretended that I didn’t want to be president I wouldn’t be honest, and I would rather be honest with my people.” Suu Kyi conceded.