Federalism Agenda in Burma

Federalism Agenda in Burma

By Wagaru Mon
Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Awards for heroism regarding the democracy movement in Burma have seized the headlines of international media this week. “Reform agenda is underway” is the common expression of the global media when writing about Burma, or The Union of Myanmar as it’s been officially recognized. However, the media has avoided asking the hard questions about Burma’s lasting peace and national unity. These are the questions Burma’s Federation Campaign has sought answers to in the last twenty years; questions advanced by many ethnic citizens but few Burman leaders. These questions must be answered by the leaders of the current government of the Union of Myanmar and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi if the nation as a whole is to reap more from the two most political celebrities from Burma.

The faith of over 50 million people in Burma is in the hands of President U Thein Sein. He now has an opportunity to liberate them once and for all, but if he misses the opportunity, he must live with the guilt of political coward for lacking the mettle to restore a united Burma under his own principle of “clean government, fair government, just government,” as claimed in a March speech. Federalism is not a treat to the sovereignty of Burma. It is the strength of a nation that will compete on the global stage with new social, economic and political changes in the 21st century.

A peace plan should be drawn through a peace process within the basic understandings of population security, local autonomy and national unity. President U Thein Sein and Daw Suu Kyi have avoided the hard question of forming a united Burma under the principle of ‘Federation’ that has been outlined over the past twenty by movements for democracy and ethnic self-autonomy. Federation is the last answer for Burma, but continuing to ignore this will not help the popularity of these political celebrities in a political storm yet to come.

The desire of all ethnic people to establish federalism in Burma has been a popular topic of debate since the election of November 2010. A military-affiliated government has transformed itself as an alternative government under the new constitution. Pro-democracy activists and political resistance forces have struggled to foster a new united campaign, while the nation has been divided on various fronts.

The question of federalism in Burma is not a relevant topic to most of Burma’s observers and experts from Western nations. However, most ethnic armed forces leaders believe that federalism is the only way to move away from the current political stalemate. According to the UN Information Center in Rangoon, “Recognizing the significance of the government’s commitments, we must stress that implementation is key. I underscored the opportunity and responsibility that the government now has to translate its commitments into effective action. Domestically and internationally, expectations are high that it will start taking concrete steps soon”.

Restoring Burma’s democratic political system is the new destiny of Burma’s citizens. Different approaches, strategies, and principles will have to be used based on the concepts of those involved on the ground. The aspiration for unity can be fostered in grassroots practice when a commitment is made to uphold the principle of human rights and equality. The concept of federalism must come before democracy in Burma, as we have seen in recent political events.

President U Thein Sein will be playing a win-win game with the UN and U.S. engagement for a wider acknowledgement of his new government in the international community arena.

The newly elected military-affiliated government for the Union of Myanmar will not help Burma grow into a peaceful and prosperous nation under the rule of law. The newly formed government is not committed to better governance or to sharing power with the ethnic states based in parliament unless the local Members of Parliament align with the government. Local activists and politicians should be seeking greater political participation in local issues such as health, education, and economy, while they also have to strive for better access to state budgets and resources that are mainly controlled by military-affiliated businesses and sectors.

A sensible way of building a new nation under a federalist model will never be perfect in modern politics unless peoples’ participation in the decision-making process is solidified. It is a new political ground that Burma — as a nation that has to prepare for political inclusiveness — rests on the foundation of building a flourishing democracy in this century. A nation of multi-ethnic, diverse people has to support local and national policies so that each voice is lawfully heard and protected. The best form of federalism engages different political interest groups and ensures that both local issues and broader national issues like health, education, employment and legal protection to all citizens of the country are heard. Burma is historically a land of peace, but the country has been torn apart due to a lack of trust and respect between multi-ethnic political leaders and Burmese army generals. For the last 50 years, the nation has been ruled by military might and, as a result, the nation has declined into dysfunction and marginalization on the modern world stage. The Burma ethnic majority needs to address this decline and if modern political leaders decide to pursue a federalist platform, then this ethnic majority must rebuild trust in their government.

The best model will combine the principle of political change in the country with a sense of social justice within the community of each ethnic group and the neighboring borders. Activists, new political leaders, and those who seek political power in the meantime should foster a mentality of change through the spirit of evolution and revolution. The seven ethnic states and regions with high proportions of ethnic people should therefore be incepted under a sensible constitution in due time.

It is in Burma’s interest that the nation seeks lasting peace and prosperity like other countries in the region. However, any conflict over issues cannot be solved unless political leaders share the burden of the social, political, and economic implications of the nation.

A federalist model in Burma should also seek technical assistance from local, national, and international constitutional lawyers and experts. Burmese constitutional experts and modern political leaders have been working for some time both privately and publically in liberated areas. However, federalism projects like the National Reconciliation Program (NRP) and Transitional Justice on Burma have limited resources and must network with grassroots inside the country. Burma’s pro-democracy campaigners nationally and internationally are wise to set up a proposed “Burma Federalism Project” locally and nationally with the support of other civil society networks. A network such as this could reach local media, civil society and other groups, such as workers’ groups, where community education sessions could also commence within the community. A similar project should be setting within the communities in all states and regions that under the law citizens can explore new ideas for co-existing with peace and unity. A mentality of community should be fostered within the community’s attitude and behavior.

Buddhist culture has been living within the hearts of the majority of Burmese for more than a thousand years. Imposing a new institution in social and political terms will require time and space to be integrated within the community. It is not only a system to be changed for national prosperity and lasting peace, but also a requirement of institutional changes with moral responsibility. This is the hard question for Burma: Can institutional change be achieved in such a closed political landscape?

Western observers and experts on Burma rarely look at the nature of the society on its societal and cultural functionality in social and political terms, even though they have the best intentions for the Burmese. They have been seeking a solution for Burma that falls under the banner of “democracy, human rights and national reconciliation” for some years now. A close-minded political culture has been deepening among Burma’s people prior to British rule in early 1880s. A self-observed community in religion and traditional beliefs has been living with the mentality of the generation of the 19th century while the open-minded generation of the 21st century tends to seek liberalization. Local politicians fail to capture the changing pattern of these old and new generations when they mobilized the movement in the early 1990s.

After 60 years of militarization and nationalism of the Burmese, a question of federalism in the 21st century must be examined based on rulers’ attitudes. A newly formed government and parliament is dominated in both the national and state assemblies by former military personnel. The ethnic leaders have been formally and informally calling for political dialogue with the ruling military regime for over 20 years, but the ruling Burmese who have dominated the new government have never made or given a gesture towards any of these proposals.

The ruling military regime lacks vision for the formation of federalism apart from blaming the ethnic leaders and people with a propaganda of “disintegration of the Union” over the last 60 years. Despite ethnic leaders reaching a consensus on many historical accords for a genuine balance of power between the national (federal government) and state governments with a new model constitution proposed by the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) in 2004, the military government has continued to ignore the initiative.

Although the question of federalism in Burma has been hidden under the banner of democratization in recent events like the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the aspiration of the movement has never been diminished among ethnic and majority Burmese democracy activists. The only sensible model of federalism will sustain Burma’s lasting political stability in the 21st century.

An attempt at “socialism” failed from 1962 to 1988 amidst political manipulation by the ruling military government. Over 20 years of military rule never sustained peace and security within the community in the country and beyond. A freshly crafted but shameful constitution and newly elected government has lacked federalism and democratization with the principle of a ‘free and fair’ society. Burma scholar and prominent journalist Bertil Lintner warned, “Recent openness in other areas should not be viewed as a sign that newer leaders are more liberal-minded. Rather, this suggests that the new generation is perpetuating the same cycle of repression, openness, and then repression again that the older generation perfected.”

In addition, the Australian National University recently convened a conference about Burma with over 70 guest researchers, scholars, and policy makers from the Australian government as well as Burmese democracy activists and speakers from the Union of Myanmar. Some speakers did share the view that the new government is willing to “change, reform and cooperate” under the new legislative framework yet the majority remained silent on this assertion.

A lack of trust and respect between Burmese and non-Burmese ethnic people, especially among political leaders, should heal both spiritually and mentally. A sensible model of power sharing and a balance of power between Burmese-dominated officials within the government and non-Burmese ethnic elites based in urban areas should foster mature relations and win-win positions for the common good and common purpose. A lack of mature respect and trust among Burmese and non-Burmese elites will delay federalism in Burma regardless of any political conviction in our era.

An aspiration of the formation of genuine federal governance in Burma is not only a lasting political solution but also works toward lasting regional human security in terms of armed conflict and internally displaced persons. Burma will be a nation of progression in social and political order if the country is ruled equally by each ethnic government in its own state and equal division under the rule of laws. A political movement on a campaign for federalism will never be achieved unless local young men and women in our generation share a common interest for education, health and economic development among local Burmese and non-Burmese people within the same country.

New political leaders and democracy activists have little choice but to take bold action in communities where they could engage local issues about health, education and socio-cultural development for the best interest of each citizen of the country. Federalism is not only bargaining for sole political power, but also for the sake of sharing power, responsibility and resources among local people. Therefore, the rule of law is the foundation of this movement in our era.

I will advocate and explore a sensible way for Burma to be governed under the principle of federalism in the 21st century through a sense of national pride from all citizens of the country regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity. It is time that a mature political vision and a bold movement among local people for fostering public participation in local issues – from schooling to hospitals, from road construction to town planning – in which each citizen has a say on how and why these issues are important.

I have lived under the rule of law, democracy, and practice of federalism for local and national issues in a Western country for more than 10 years. In Australia, I am informed by the media, governmental agencies and public notices. I have the right to be informed and to be engaged with the issues in my local area, and it has been a good experience. I have observed and learned from the practical lessons that local government has a major role to play in local education, health and social and cultural development for its people.

It is in Burma’s best interest that the local governments in each state and division have constitutional power under a parliamentary framework in which the local governments can independently implement policies without the intervention of the federal government. The federalism of Australia has strong social and political capitals because citizens are informed in all local and national issues prior to the government’s decision making process.

It is a good time for local activists and other newer political and social interest forces to build a consensus deciding where to take Burma from here. Burma will be ruled by military elites and its affiliated businesses in the foreseeable future unless a new campaign for a genuine federal state is formed in our generation. No one will lose anything by supporting a better and fairer model of federalism in Burma. It is the foundation of Burma for the 21st century. Unity is strength and diversity is wealth for Burma. U Ko Ko Hlaing said recently in the Myanmar Times journal that “The president was ‘likely’ to declare a general amnesty at the ‘time he sees fit’.” Indeed, equality under the law must uphold the rule of law based on the principle of human rights in this new era of democracy.

The president has also welcomed those whose opinions differ from his, and has wanted anti-government groups to participate in the democratic process, provided they accept the constitution. This assertion is not balanced, but is still a welcomed gesture for further political debate in the country. However, Lintner again contrarily warned that, “For instance, the new constitution gives the commander in chief of the armed forces the power to directly select one-fourth of all parliamentary seats, and allows the president to hand over power to the army in the event of a ‘national crisis’ — a term so vaguely defined it could mean a popular pro-democracy uprising. There is no indication that Gen. Thein Sein has any intention to change this.” Lintner clearly read the mindset of the army general based on the history of the past and the present. A closer look should be examined by local politicians on whether the president keeps his word.

A constitutional and institutional change will never be completed unless an attitude change is accomplished among the culturally and ethnically diverse local people. David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, asserted that “needs of local development in health, education, land management, and economic reforms, including urgently needed micro-financing projects. These fundamentals have been lost in the haze of a system of control and the various responses by communities to survive under continued military rule (with a thin civilian facade for now).” Over 400 farmers have lost their local farm land since 1996, when the government of the Union of Myanmar (the former ruling junta) began confiscating land in Mon State under the guise of security for the building of new army camps during the construction of the Unocal–Total gas project. Land rights must be adequately addressed in new laws so as to ensure the survival of local farmers and peasants. Workers and farmer’s rights under the law should be debated in the local state and division assembly as an urgent matter. Federalism in Burma will only succeed when all the ethnic people of Burma share pain and gain. A political power without morality is a sin. A free and fair society will maintain peace only when people respect the dignity of a person. This is the campaign that I am devoted to walk along with my global friends who wish Burma success in the 21st century.

“Federalism is one mechanism for reconciling as far as possible. The autonomy of diverse regions within a nation with a sufficient degree of national and governmental unity,” Christopher D. Gilbert asserts in his book Australian and Canadian Federalism. He added that, “Perhaps the more diverse are the regions comprising a federal nation, the looser and more de-centralized that nation’s federalism needs to be.”

I am a citizen and activist of Burma who would like to see Burma transform into a democratic nation. I will seek a place to bring this debate, with its relevant facts and arguments from both the past and current events of Burma.

The failure of movement for peace and national unity for a Federation of Burma is a failure of our entire generation. This is a real test for current leaders of all ethnicities and the Burmese elite. Time has come for the change of mentality above popularity.

Updated from the last version in May 2011.


More articles from issue 05/2 More articles from issue 02/3
More articles from issue 05/2
- Ethnic Political Party Alliance Calls for Federal Cooperation in Peace Process

- New Formed Mon Researcher To Protect Old Kingdom

- Seven Arrested in Lamine sub-Township Drug Bust

- US Delegation Meets Ethnic MPs in Naypyidaw

- Two Mon Parties Reaffirm Agreement to Unite

- A house divided will fail to win power for the Mon

- Questions Arise as Reports of Additional Military Training Surface

- Burma Tour Agency Offers Spiritual Travel Experience

- Reformist Burmese Government Continues to Use ‘Divide and Rule’ Colonial System

- Forty-Three Rohingya Boatpeople Walk Out Freely from Prison in Moulmein

- Federalism Agenda in Burma

- ‘Maintain and Be Proud of Your Ethnic Identity’ Say Suu Kyi amid Whirlwind Trip to United States

- Concerns Grows Over Threat of Increased Drug Use in Mon State

- Government Land-Seizure Investigation Committee Moves to Karen State

- Ethnic Mon in America Welcome Suu Kyi’s Visit With Words of Advice

- First Permitted Commemoration of International Peace Day Marks in Moulmein

- Ethnic Groups Issue Their Own Peace Plan

- Ethnic Mon Monk and Right Activists Make Donation to Insein Prison

- Ethnic Mon Monks Face Accusations of Partiality in Face of Difficult Political Talks

- Political Reform Comes at Cost of Ethnic Representation in Naypyidaw

- NMSP Outlines Party Objectives at 65th Mon Revolution Day

- NMSP maintains “wait and see” Policy

- Ethnic Mon MPs Meet Mon Migrants in Mahachai

- Pa-oh group agrees to a ceasefire with the Burmese government.

- Eight Thai Citizens Facing Prison in Burma

- Ethnic Languages to be Taught in Burmese Schools

- Ethnic Political Party Alliance Requests Reforms to Government Census Lists

- Initial Agreement Reached Between 88 Generation and Two Mon Political Parties

- Ethnic Conference Through to Find out Peace Hopefully (Interview)

- Starting Historic Journal, The Than Lwin Times (Interview)

- KNU says Burmese Government does not Want Real Political Dialogue

- Remembering Mon leader Nai Non Lar

- Mon Curriculum Brought to President Thein Sein

- Ethnic Mon Buddhist Doctor To Teach in Germany

- Mon Leadership at a Crossroads (Opinion)

- Ethnic Mon in Sangkhlaburi Join Buddhist Chanting to Celebrate the Buddhist Lent

- Educational Funding Possibilities Arise as Multi-Ethnic Curriculum Argument Increases

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