The Interplays of Federalism and Self-Determination in Myanmar

The Myanmar military has previously disagreed with a fundamental principle of federal self-determination, which states that ethnic groups have the right to self-determination.

By Gaung 09 Mar 2022

Written by Gaung

Myanmar’s post-independence political history includes military and civilian governments, and administrations made up of generals, former generals, and civilians.

The current armed uprising in Myanmar’s ethnic areas is rooted in a fight for equality, self-determination and self-autonomy. In other words, ethnic nationalities who do not like the Constitution, which has protected a group of dictators for generations, are armed and demanding equality and self-determination. Civil war is still raging in Myanmar today as a result of successive dictatorial regimes’ use of force to ignite ethnic insurgencies.

However, one year after the coup, the military council on February 1, 2022, issued an incentive to the people. Interestingly, the military council has argued that the federal union should be self-determined by states and regions.

“We need to choose a system that is compatible with our country, regardless of the differences we have about federalism. The division of power between the three branches and the division of power between the states and regions in accordance with the law will give each region and state the right to self-determination,” said Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the State Administration Council (SAC).

He made the remarks during a speech marking one year since the military’s takeover.

The military, which for decades would not even utter the word federalism when it came to Myanmar’s political-peace process, is now claiming to understand the importance of equality and federalism.

The Myanmar military has previously disagreed with a fundamental principle of federal self-determination, which states that ethnic groups have the right to self-determination.

On the other hand, the National Unity Government (NUG) is drafting a federal constitution for Myanmar. The National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) is made up of 33 organisations based on the Federal Charter.

A People’s Conference was held from January 27-30, with the participation of eight ethnic armed organisations, members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), political parties, striking civil servants, labour unions, protest leaders, youth and women’s representatives, ethnic minority groups and civil society organisations (CSO), among others.

Duwa Lashi La, acting president of the NUG, said he hoped the conference would be able to review and approve strategies for the abolition of the 2008 Constitution and the establishment of a federal democratic union.

The Burmese ethnic revolutionary forces and the people have agreed to go to a federal democratic union, while the ethnic nationalities are listening to the federal principles set by the NUG and the military council.

As a result, ethnic leaders in Myanmar now need to elaborate on a new federal principle, and there are voices of dissatisfaction that should not be kept quiet.

“Federalism is Burmese ideology. The idea that you are not allowed to create your own destiny is re-emerging. … Ethnic leaders need to spread the message of what federal democracy is all about,” said Colonel Min Tun, chairman of the Arakan National Council (ANC) and the chief of its armed wing.

The statement was made during the first-ever People’s Conference, convened by the NUCC. The ANC has been fighting the military council together with allied forces in Kayin State during the Spring Revolution.

Complexities of Federalism

As mentioned above, the NUCC is also known to be weighing federal charters and has yet to come up with strong principles that the people can trust. The military council has also been unable to formulate a federal model, which has led to a void in the current political climate. In addition, federalism has emerged as a way to address the complexities of Myanmar’s current political landscape, and this could even be described as a federal era.

“It remains to be seen how acceptable this federalism will be to the ethnic armed organisations. What I want to say is that I think it would be a good sign if we can really pave the way for the country to move forward. But we still need to make it clear to the public what kind of federalism it will be,” said Saw Mra Yarzar Lin of the Arakan Liberation Party.

“But it is also possible that we will move to a federal system in the Myanmar way. Federalism is broad. Therefore, I think it will be good for the country if there is a wide-ranging discussion,” she added.

Looking back at the political history of Myanmar, in previous years, EAOs and powerful political parties have said they do not like the 2008 Constitution and will move toward federalism, but there has been no strategic negotiating process.

“The ethnic people should have self-determination, power-sharing, administrative and judicial authority. The rights of ethnic nationalities need to be fully integrated into federalism,” said U Pe Than, a veteran Arakanese politician.

Political Honesty Is Needed

Peace is not yet easy to achieve, as the country is currently in the throes of an armed uprising. With the 2008 Constitution linked to what the military council is talking about, the public is also negative about how much federal self-determination could be included. The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which was a way for the rebels to find a solution, is also uncertain about the implementation of federalism and self-determination.

Among the many reasons for not achieving this political goal was a lack of focus on Burmese authoritarianism and the process of authoritarianism by the ruling leader of the moment and the military. These factors raise a lot of questions and doubts about the dishonesty of the parties concerned in political choices.

U Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, criticised the military council’s claim that federalism and self-determination are the reason for quashing the Spring Revolution as well as the political tactics that attracted strong support for the Arakan Army (AA).

“But will they [the public] accept the military council’s opinion based on their statements? Or is it important to evaluate the actual practice of the procedure?” he said.

In short, the political landscape for more than 70 years has proved that Myanmar’s democracy cannot survive without parliament and elections. At the same time, there can be no democratic federalism without internal peace, so those who will take part in the next federal democracy must build it on the basis of honesty.