The Irrawaddy

Federalism and State Formation in Myanmar

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (center) shares a stage with women of Myanmar's major ethnic groups after attending celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of Union Day in Panglong, Shan State, on Feb. 12, 2017.

Myanmar is federalizing. This trend has been apparent in the ongoing political transition since 2011. Explicit evidence of this includes changes in the state structure that composes the national government in Naypyitaw and the state/regional governments and the federal negotiations between the national government and ethnic minority armed forces. These shifts aim to develop a more robust federal system that allows appropriate power sharing between central and constituent units. However, federalism-building in Myanmar is an arduous task, one that has long been challenged by the country’s specific state-building procedure.

For Myanmar, the historic evolution of state formation affects the outcome of the federal-unitary division. The Panglong agreement and the draft constitution of 1947 provided basic federal principles for state integration, but the military coup in 1962 brought about the fall of federalism and the rise of centralism in the state governing structure. These critical junctures indicate the great metamorphosis of statecraft in modern history and also produce a federal-unitary faultline in Myanmar’s political architecture. Even though federalism has re-emerged since the big political reform in 2011, the legacy of unitarianism, centralism, authoritarianism and militarism still impacts the politics of federalization in Myanmar.

Theoretically, the specific type of federation that emerges depends on whether the historic pathway begins from a process of coming-together or holding-together federalization. Myanmar was born as a coming-together federalizing state by amalgamating separate British colonial government units based on the principle of voluntary association. However, the recent federalizing process played out by way of a holding-together approach by devolving power from a previous unitary-authoritarian regime that resulted in the enduring power of the military in politics. The Panglong agreement of 1947 is a historic marker that formed the basis for the territorial-demographic integration of Burma proper and the Frontier Areas Administration and then paved the way for the new state formation. Although most ethnic minority leaders have recalled the spirit of coming-together federalization in 1947, Myanmar’s state-making process has been heavily influenced by the strong national unification project, dominated largely by the historic formation of the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) during the Second World War. The evolution of the Tatmadaw led to the holding-together federalizing track and the establishment of a centralized unitary state system.

The problem with federal design in Myanmar is an embedded legacy from a critical warring period. When the Second World War reached Myanmar, an embryo of the Myanmar patriotic army was gradually formed under Japanese fascism and its centralized military command structure. As such, the Tatmadaw came into existence and started its historic role as the backbone of Myanmar’s state-building. This evolution illustrates, to some extent, that warfare brought about state formation and resulted in the strength of centralized unification in Myanmar’s political context. Indeed, since independence, Myanmar’s nationalist leaders have had to undertake the tasks of reconstruction and protecting the country from state disintegration. This resulted in the difficulty of designing a full-fledged federalism because the process of Myanmar’s unification focused on centralization, aiming not only to maintain the union from the fluctuations of internal and international politics but also to construct a new state via a cohesive government system under powerful Burman-centric nationalism and the strength of the Myanmar Armed Forces, which specialized on state-building through warfare.

It is this historic imprint that Myanmar’s current federalization cannot escape; this centripetal force, a partial product of dynamic relations between war and state-making, continues to affect the endurance of the unification process on Myanmar’s federalizing path. The first session of the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong, or UPC-21CP, held in Naypyitaw in 2016 from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4, recalled the legacy of the 1947 Panglong accord. In this conference, Karen National Union Chairman Saw Mutu Sae Po stated that “a democratic federal union could be built through the 2016 Panglong in the same way that the 1947 Panglong led the nation to independence.” In the second session of UPC-21CP in 2017 from May 24 to 29, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi clearly emphasized the importance of a federal arrangement as a suitable method for ending the prolonged conflicts in Myanmar. Nonetheless, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, explained that the country’s state formation was still facing internal and external threats and that it was therefore a critical time for strengthening unification. As a historic institution responsible for protecting the security of the state, the Tatmadaw has continuously attempted to keep its political role in order to control the federal trajectory as well as to guard the union from fragmentation.

Federalization in Myanmar is a historic outcome of the longstanding state-making process. Myanmar’s historic pathway demonstrated that even when federal development moved on, the warring always continued. As war games between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armies went on, the dynamic interplay between war and state-building sustained and supported the Tatmadaw’s dominant role in federal politics. Moreover, history has repeated itself in Myanmar’s political development, as in the case of the 1962 coup that arose when a federalizing state formation process reached its zenith. As such, the collision between federalization and unification has become the classic characteristic of Myanmar’s modern politics.

Myanmar Union Day, celebrated on Feb. 12, marks the date in 1947 when the Panglong agreement was signed and enacted to bring about state integration.  However, prior to 1947, there was at least one striking political event that profoundly impacted state-building in modern Myanmar. This was the birth of the Myanmar Armed Forces, which aimed to unify the state.  With the unification process having preceded federalization, the Tatmadaw still plays a strong leadership role in determining the actual meaning of “union” in the context of Myanmar today as well as in controlling the phases of the federating process in transitional politics.

Dulyapak Preecharush is an assistant professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Thailand’s Thammasat University.