Myanmar is facing one of the world’s longest ongoing civil wars with at least 21 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) fighting for equality and regional autonomy for nearly seven decades. The successive governments in Myanmar have tried, but so far failed, to reach an agreement on how to resolve the conflict through peaceful political negotiation.
The latest attempt for peace, initiated by former president U Thein Sein and inherited by the democratically elected government, could be thought of as more far reaching. After more than five years of negotiations under the current Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) peace process, most of the EAOs and the government together with the Tatmadaw agreed to work to establish a federal democratic union through negotiations. However, the NCA process still falls short of convincing the more powerful EAOs to come on board.
The inaccurate depiction by many media on the ethnic conflict, in most cases is unhelpful for the advancement of the peace process. In Myanmar, where the peace process involves a multitude of stakeholders, the role of the media and a need for precise, accurate reporting is imperative.
Both local and international media are portraying the ethnic armed organizations as firstly, being too demanding by reporting that they are fighting for “greater autonomy,” as if they already have great autonomy, and secondly as being separatists, by reporting that they are engaging in “separatist conflicts.”
In response to these two strands, it becomes important to ask: has the Myanmar government already given great (or some degree of) autonomy to the EAOs? Second, are the EAOs still demanding complete independence?
What is agreed in the NCA on autonomy and federalism? Article (1.a) of the NCA principles states that the parties agreed to establish a union based on the principles of democracy and federalism. But it is important to recognize that the NCA is only a roadmap to resolving the armed conflicts, it does not automatically grant autonomy and federalism. These developments would arise out of subsequent political dialogues. Therefore, it is unknown yet what degree of autonomy will be given to the regional governments and what type of federalism would eventuate.
Let’s first look at the meaning of “autonomy”, then examine if the EAOs actually have a great, or even some degree of autonomy, as the media suggests:
Leading dictionaries define autonomy as “the right of an organization, country, or region to be independent and govern itself” (Cambridge Dictionary); “Freedom from external control or influence; independence” (Oxford Dictionary); “legally entrenched power of communities to exercise public policy functions of a legislative, executive and/or judicial type independently of other sources of authority in the state, but subject to the overall legal order of the state” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Self-Determination).
Scholars define autonomy as a special arrangement between the center and one or two regions of a country where the center and regional government(s) share legislative power [Papagianni, 2006, p-52]; “free choice of one’s own acts or states without external compulsion” [Finaud, (2009, p-9)]; “political independence of the organization when it comes to making its own decisions” [Jean d’Aspremont (2011, p-63)]; and “means of internal power–sharing aimed at preserving the cultural and ethnic character of a region or people, and providing regional democratic self–government” [Stothart, (2014, p-5)].
Evidently, ‘autonomy’ means the exclusive executive, legislative, and judicial power prescribed in law over matters concerning a sub-national region. While concurrent power is jointly exercised with the central authority, the autonomous authority must be able to exercise the prescribed exclusive power without interference. In this context, are there any states or divisions enjoying autonomy in Myanmar?
Many point to the United Wa State Army (UWSA) as an example of an EAO having autonomy in its controlled areas. The question is: Does the government recognize the autonomy of the UWSA? Is the autonomy legally and politically guaranteed? Is there any court the UWSA can turn to if its autonomy is questioned? Many would agree that the UWSA enjoys the current degree of autonomy because of its military might. This reasoning is reflected in the Tatmadaw’s ongoing military campaigns against the Kachin Independence Army/ Organization (KIA/KIO). The KIA/KIO is often cited as another example of a group having some degree of autonomy over its controlled territories. During the last six years of war, that started in June 2011, the KIA has lost significant territorial control. What happened to its autonomy?
The point is, whatever degree of autonomy the EAOs currently have cannot be interpreted as enjoying any autonomy because it is not guaranteed legally nor politically. Genuine autonomy needs to be sustainable. In this context, the EAOs have no autonomy.
What about the legitimate State and Division governments created under the 2008 Constitution? Is there any state, division and self-administered zone or region in Myanmar which is given autonomy with exclusive power on (some) matters concerned with the territory? The rights on matters listed in the Schedule Two in the Constitution are seemingly the power of the regional authorities, which is to be exercised in accordance with the prescribed procedures. It is unclear whether the rights listed in Schedule Two are indeed the exclusive rights of the regional authorities. What is clear is that until now there is no law prescribing procedures to implement them. There are no state and division constitutions. Moreover, the states and divisions cannot even elect their chief ministers.
The State and Division governments are allowed to collect taxes on various matters within their jurisdictions but the tax revenue must be deposited to the Union Fund according to [Article 231 (a)] of the Constitution. It means that the regional governments have no financial resources at their disposal for the development of their constituencies. In other words, the regional governments can do nothing without the approval from the Union Government.
In her interview with The Irrawaddy in March 2017, Dr. Lei Lei Maw, (Chief Minister of Tenasserim Division) said that the regional government has no right to keep the revenue collected from the region concerned. The Chief Minister believes that if the regional government is allowed to keep a certain percentage of the revenue, it would allow the regional government to address some of the local needs.
The short answer to whether or not the regional governments have autonomy is that the 2008 Constitution does not even contain the word “autonomy.” Therefore, the EAOs are still fighting for autonomy and federalism.
However, mainstream media and some institutional reports alike suggest that the EAOs already have great or some degree of autonomy by reporting that they are fighting for “greater autonomy.” [See, for example, Amnesty International; BBC News; New York Times; Dissent Magazine; Reuters; Time;DVB; Al Jazeera; Mizzima; The Diplomat.] The New York Times article goes on to say that “Their [the KIA] aim is to maintain autonomy.” This reporting implies that the government has already given a great, or some, degree of autonomy to the EAOs, but they are not satisfied and want more.
In the absence of actual autonomy, such reporting thus risks being intentionally or unintentionally interpreted by the audience or readership as the government being reasonable whereas the EAOs are not. Such interpretation would give undue credit to the government but damages the reputation of the EAOs and smears their legitimate demand.
Secondly, are the EAOs really separatists? Even though none of the EAOs are demanding independence, it is very unfortunate that the media still portrays them as “separatists” by reporting them being engaged in “separatist conflicts”. For example, the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Nikkei Asian Review, The Hindu Business Line, South East Asia GLOBE, and OilPrice.com all report that the EAOs are engaging in “separatist conflicts”. This kind of reporting only reinforces the narrative of the Myanmar government (or perhaps the Tatmadaw), given it has always portrayed the EAOs as separatists.
The cited articles and journals here are not the only ones that report that the EAOs are fighting for “greater autonomy” and are “separatists”. The authors and reporters may or may not have the intention to suggest the EAOs being too demanding and being separatists. However, their choice of words in these cited works certainly can be interpreted as biased against the EAOs because they misrepresent the narrative of the EAOs and discredit them. On the other hand, they give undue credit to the Myanmar government and subtly reinforce the narrative of both the government and the Tatmadaw.
The correct reporting should be that the EAOs are fighting for equality, and federal political and military structures. In principle, the EAOs are not calling for separation from the Union, rather, they want to lessen the domination of the Bamar (one of the country’s ethnic groups, that makes up the majority of the population) in the administration of their regions. And ideally, they want to have a federal army, where members of ethnic communities are given equal rights. This conflict by nature is also not based on a territorial dispute, but a fight for equality under a political system acceptable for all ethnic people in Myanmar.
Yaw Bawm Mangshang is an independent observer based in Yangon. He earned an MA in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School, Tufts University. This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.