Guest Column

Visions of a Federal Future for Myanmar are Fading Fast-Part II

By Ye Myo Hein 2 September 2021

Current Position of PPST members

Some troops of the KNU, Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed group, restarted fighting with the Myanmar military prior to the coup, but this intensified after February 1. The KNU has offered sanctuary and military training to anti-coup activists and overrun army bases in their areas of operation to demonstrate its solidarity with the anti-coup movement. The CNF has also actively collaborated with locally-formed People’s Defense Forces to resist the military’s brutal assault on the pro-democracy protests in Chin state. That has provoked a brutal reaction from the junta, which has ferociously retaliated with airstrikes.

The internal political dynamics inside the signatory bloc are profoundly complex. The RCSS/SSA-S, one of the largest groups among the NCA signatories, has been reluctant to stand decisively with one side – whether the junta or the anti-coup movement – although its leader, Yawd Serk, has vocally protested the coup and supported the anti-coup movement since February 1. Myanmar analyst David Scott Mathieson pointed out that “it is more likely that Yawd Serk is prevaricating, waiting to see which side will prevail so he can cut a deal with them”. In the six months since the military takeover, the RCSS/SSA-S has focused more on fighting other ethnic groups, such as the TNLA and SSPP/SSA-N, than with the junta as it seeks greater control of territory and resources. 

Meanwhile, other groups in the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST), the coordinating body of the NCA signatories, are tentatively working with the regime or have remained silent on the coup. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the Karen National Liberation Army/Peace Council (KNLA/PC) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) met with the junta’s council in April, while the Arakan Liberation Party together with KNLA/PC attended the Armed Forces Day parade on March 27. Recently, Naing Hong Sa, the chairman of the NMSP changed the tone to call for unity between the ethnic armed groups and the Bamar people fighting the military dictatorship but it is not clear yet what the NMPS’s attitude will be going forward. The All Burma Student’s Democratic Front, Pa-O National Liberation Army and Lahu Democratic Union have remained quiet on the coup. As a bloc, the PPST officially declared the temporary cessation of the NCA implementation and peace negotiations with the junta on July 7. Moreover, Yawd Serk stepped down as the head of the PPST.

In its latest statement issued on 5th August, however, the PPST did not even mention the phrase federal democratic union despite typically – albeit feebly – having recited that mantra in all its past statements. The KNU and some smaller groups may still believe in the federal vision. Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the KNU’s foreign affairs head, told the author that “the KNU leadership still firmly believes in federalism as they know historically and empirically that it is the best way for the country”. But he admitted that even some Karen people are suspicious as to whether federalism will be the best option for them. Some ethnic armed groups, especially smaller ones, in the signatory bloc have been struggling for their survival instead of thinking about the political future of the country, and some have become disillusioned with the concept of federalism in the current tumultuous period.

This point is obviously reflected in the response of the ethnic armed organizations (EAO’s) to the federal democracy charter drafted by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw formed by the deposed parliamentary members of the NLD. The federal democracy charter released on March 31 received muted and reserved approval from the EAO’s. PPST spokesperson Colonel Khun Oakkar said “NCA signatory EAO’s welcome the federal democracy charter, but need time to examine the finer details” immediately after its release. So far, there have been no official endorsement from those EAO’s. AA chief Maj. Gen. Tun Myat Naing was more open in his response to the federal promises made by the Bamar politicians, saying that “the NLD government after 1988 promised federalism and they pledged this to the ethnic people but, after they came to power, they didn’t keep their promise”. 

Myanmar and Federal Discourse

The failure of the NLD to keep that promise is one of the key reasons for the suspicions of the ethnic minorities about the federal goal, and one of the main obstacles to forging an inter-ethnic alliance in the current anti-coup struggle. The word ‘federalism’ has been politically taboo in Myanmar since the 1962 coup, with the then coup leader General Ne Win justifying the military takeover by citing the risk of Myanmar disintegrating or fragmenting territorially due to the federal proposals of the ethnic minorities. Under military rule, the use of the word ‘federalism’ could lead to a lengthy term of imprisonment. The word was only revived as a dominant political discourse following the political opening up of 2011, especially in peace negotiations with the EAO’s. The Myanmar military, which has long been inimical to the concept of federalism, eventually agreed to establish a federal system in the country but the military’s interpretation of federalism is within the framework of the 2008 constitution. In the first 21st century Panglong conference held in August-September 2016, the military tried to assert that the 2008 constitution was written with federal characteristics, and took a firm stand on its position to uphold the military-drafted constitution. 

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, reiterated federalism as a political solution to Myanmar’s longstanding ethnic conflicts after her party’s entry into parliament in 2012. However, the NLD’s position on federalism is very general and vague and its leaders have rarely articulated any detailed policy on this controversial political concept. U Tun Myint (Taung Gyi), a veteran politician who attended the 1948 Panglong Conference, once wrote a letter criticizing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to articulate the NLD’s policy on federalism. When he asked her during a meeting in 1989 “whether the new union that your party’s statement talks about building up in the future is federal or unitary”, she retorted, “We just referred to the Union. Federal or unitary systems are theory and they are different from practice. Now, I could not say exactly what type of Union it will be. It will be negotiated in the national conference and I will accept what everyone else agrees to”. U Tun Myint suggested that the NLD, as a leading party of Myanmar, should have a detailed policy on how the future union will be formed instead of accepting and following agreements of others. [U Tun Myint (Taung Gyi), “A piece of brick and a grain of sand of a Shan politician”, pp. 533-542]

The NLD’s lack of a detailed policy on federalism was echoed by other analysts two decades later. In its 2015 manifesto, the NLD stated its goals as “the establishment of a federal democratic union based on the principles of freedom, equal rights and self-determination … through solidarity with all ethnic groups”. In two speeches during a campaign tour for the 2015 election to the Pa-O autonomous zone in Shan State, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly referred to a “federal Union” no fewer than 31 times. But after the NLD came to power, it failed to take the necessary steps to advance the federal future. The NLD government in 2015 surprised many by appointing its representatives and party members as the chief ministers of all the states and regions, even where the NLD had won a minority of state seats, without consultation with its once-allied ethnic parties. Ethnic political leaders have been critical of the NLD’s policy of going it alone, saying it does not augur well for the move towards a federal Union. 

That was exacerbated by the deteriorating relations between the NLD and the ethnic minorities due to the NLD’s missteps to impose its political hegemony through Burmanization and centralization projects. The NLD tried to impose its political hegemony in ethnic regions by erecting statues of General Aung San, father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and a key political symbol of the NLD, in Kayah State and other states with sizeable ethnic minority populations. The plan to erect the statue sparked opposition and protests in Kayah and the NLD’s local officials made the situation worse by violently cracking down on the demonstrations. There were also protests in Mon State when the NLD decided to change the name of a bridge in Mawlamyine to the General Aung San Bridge. During the NLD’s reign in power, its intentional silence about, and sometimes tacit endorsement, of the military’s brutal offensives in ethnic regions also triggered resentment among the ethnic minorities toward the NLD’s promises of federalism. It is fair to say that the AA and the Rakhine people have become disillusioned with the idea of federalism since the NLD’s time in power. 

On the other hand, the diverse ethnic political forces have not delivered much thought to the precise institutional arrangement of any federalist state. Most of the EAOs prefer a more decentralized federal union, in which the ethnic states have a high degree of autonomy and self-determination consistent with the 1947 Panglong agreement. However, as the veteran analyst Bertil Lintner once wrote, they need to answer the questions of “What kind of federal union would they (EAO’s) want? How should power be divided between the states and the central government? What exactly is the ‘federal army’ some of the groups have talked about?” In the political and academic spheres, different federal systems such as the territorial, ethnic, symmetric, asymmetric, dual, cooperative and creative have been proposed and discussed, but so far no consensus has been reached. The multi-ethnic inhabitants of the states and the recent initiatives by certain groups such as AA in favor of confederation have complicated the issue even more, and now the coup has further aggravated the situation. 

Ultimately, the military’s coup has put the country on a path towards becoming a failed state running the risk of disintegration and territorial fragmentation. Without political solidarity among the diverse political and ethnic groups or a shared political vision, the anti-coup movement is highly unlikely to overcome the current political crisis of the country. 

Federalism has been much anticipated as a shared political vision to forge political solidarity between the pro-democracy and federal proponents. However, at this crucial moment, the attraction of federalism has been woefully diminishing even among its former champions and there are obviously growing tendencies toward confederation and separate states. The coup has definitely put Myanmar into a political black hole, but the future of the country looks even bleaker, particularly due to the lack of consensus among the anti-junta political stakeholders on the vision they are striving for and on the future country they are trying to build up. Myanmar will continue to head only in a dire direction if the shared vision on the future of the country is not revamped and re-envisioned soon.

Ye Myo Hein is the executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies and a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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