Secession, Confederation, Federalism or Decentralization?

By Joe Kumbun 16 May 2019

“Building a federal state [in Myanmar] seems far away [because] the 2008 Constitution has been taboo for the Myanmar Army, or Tatmadaw’ said Gen. Yawd Serk, temporary head of the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) and leader of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS). [This] highlights the country is stuck in the quagmire of political stagnation.

Since the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by some ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), there has been no significant achievement toward peace. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi initiated the ‘21st Century Panglong Peace Conference’ to solve the conflict and build a federal state, but no tangible results have been achieved. Furthermore, the Tatmadaw extended a two-month unilateral ceasefire after a four-month truce expired in April, but it explicitly excluded Rakhine State, where the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA) have been fighting intensely.

Myanmar has recently debated four characteristic political goals – secession, confederation, federalism and decentralization.

Bitter Lesson of Secession

The second session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference ended with the revival of the word ‘secession,’ a word that people have long seen as taboo. In the summit, held in Nay Pyi Taw on October 15, 2018, the Tatmadaw and EAOs failed to resolve differences over the issues of non-secession. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said “non-secession is important. But also the will not to secede and to establish together a Union that need not be seceded from is also important.”

History teaches us a bitter lesson when the word ‘secession’ comes up. The 1947 Burmese constitution clearly stated that states could secede from the union after ten years (Article 201 of Chapter 10). If two-thirds of members of the State Council voted for secession followed by the state’s citizenry in a referendum arranged by a referendum commission assigned by the president, states can secede from the central government.

On January 4, 1948, Burma gained independence from Britain through the Panglong Agreement, which General Aung San and ethnic leaders signed to build a federal union on the principle of equal political rights.

Ten years later, in 1962, when the time had come for secession according to the constitution, General Ne Win, who was in charge of the armed forces, ousted U Nu in a military coup. His justification for the military coup was that he saved the country from the brink of fragmentation. However, it was obvious that the military coup was motivated by the possibility of secession. Thus, the hopes of secession for ethnic minorities—along with the rights they sought through it—have been doomed ever since.

Secession has been a problematic and unacceptable word to every successive military regime since. The recent debate over secession highlights how this word turns to disagreement.

Is Confederation Better?

Early this year, Maj-Gen. Tun Myat Naing—the leader of AA—raised the confederate discourse, asserting, “We prefer a confederation of states.” His proclamation ignites many people, including the Tatmadaw, to question the future of Myanmar’s political dynamics. The Tatmadaw immediately responded that the AA must give up its goal of confederation.

Confederation is the formation of countries or territories which fully exercise their sovereign power. This status is only obtained by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Myanmar. The 2008 Constitution officially grants the territory controlled by the UWSA as the Wa Self-Administered Division. It is a de facto independent territory, operating outside the sphere of national sovereignty.

The AA’s Chief Maj-Gen. Tun Myat Naing expressed that the AA wants to gain the confederate status of the Wa enclave. However, this will be unlikely to happen, partly because most EAOs claim federal status, and partly because the Tatmadaw will not let this happen.

Federal Discourse

The word “Federalism” was revived by the government under President Thein Sein. After several meetings between the government’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee [UPWC] and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team [NCCT], set up by 16 armed ethnic groups to negotiate a cease-fire deal with the government, the government finally agreed to establish a federal system in the country in August 2014.  Since then people, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have reiterated federalism as a concept to strive for as a political solution.

In the first session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, held from August 30 to September 3, 2016, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNCF) read their proposal, in which they described the future federal union.

On October 15, 2016, the government announced the ‘Seven Steps Roadmap’ for national reconciliation and union peace. One of the seven steps—to build a democratic federal union in accordance with the results of the multi-party, democratic general elections—emphasized the road to federalism.

In June, 2017, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi toured Canada to learn about federalism. “I am happy to be here, particularly to study the federalism of Canada because it is where we are trying to go. We are trying to build up a democratic federal union,” she said, according to AFP.

Although the word ‘federalism’ is getting familiar to power-holders, policymakers and grassroots organizations, it has not yet come to pass.  Yet it is at this critical juncture that we must answer the questions: “What kind of federalism should Myanmar create?” “Should it be ethnic-based or state-based federalism?” “Should it be a symmetric or asymmetric federal system?” “How many languages should be official?”  “Should the education and tax system be standardized?” “What is the central government’s exclusive jurisdiction over and what is the states’?”

To answer these questions and build a federal union, we need time and cannot address them overnight.

Not Plausible, but Preferable: Decentralization

While preparing for a federal state or beyond, we should not forget about decentralization.  No one can deny that different political goals of ethnic minorities such as secession, confederation and federalism are a better solution.

However, why does decentralization matter here?  My concern, alongside many perhaps, is that decentralization should be quickly applied to distribute powers to ethnic states.

For example, chief ministers should be elected by their own states. The amendment of the Constitution is underway, but how much MPs can reform the articles of the Constitution—for example, Article 261—is questionable.  Undeniably, if we decentralize fiscal and political powers, we could gradually experience the concept of federalism.

In a nutshell, in building a federal union it seems we have a long way to go, as Gen. Yark Seik said. It means that no one knows how long the federalism path will take.  Meanwhile, decentralization cannot be underestimated, and it may be a linchpin step towards a federal union or beyond.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.