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Rediscovering Burma’s federal soul

Burma/Myanmar — traditionally titled as the “anthropologists’ paradise” — has despondently endured six decades in the perdition of politics inflamed by ethnic coercion, political repression and armed conflicts. The world’s longest conflict has resulted in untold sufferings for the people including the loss of livelihood, massive internal displacements, external migration and the exodus of refugees. Recent years, nonetheless, brought a sense of spring to Burmese by opening up possibilities for the politics of multi-polarity, ethnic reconciliation and democratic representation.

On 30 March 2011, in his inaugural speech, President U Thein Sein resolved to “build national unity by addressing the decades of armed conflicts with the ethnic nationalities caused by dogmatism, sectarian strife and racism”. Subsequently, 13 ceasefire agreements were signed within a year. The iconic Aung San Suu Kyi entered the parliament with her comrades from National League for Democracy (NLD). Committees to reform the Constitution have been formed.

Burma is going to hold general election in 2015 but some critical reforms are required in its 2008 Constitution to steer a peaceful transition — from a Burman-centric and militarily-dominated totalitarian state to an ethnically inclusive and federally re-organised republic.

Ethno-religious configuration:

Burma is a diverse society with 8 major ‘national races’ and 135 officially recognised ethnic groups. The last official survey records the ethnic statistics as: Burman 68 per cent, Shan 9 per cent, Karen 7 per cent, Rakhine 4 per cent, Chinese 3 per cent, Indian 2 per cent, Mon 2 per cent, other 5 per cent. Religiously, majority of Burmese (89 per cent) are followers of Theravada, the oldest branch of Budhism with a massive following in neighbouring Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

Sri Lanka is another South Asian country where Theravada Budhism is followed prominently. Minority religions in Burma include: Christian 4 per cent (Baptist 3 per cent, Roman Catholic 1 per cent), Muslim 4 per cent, Animist 1 per cent, other 2 per cent. Several sources of history establish that Rohingya Muslims in Burma originated from Bangladesh and migrated to Burma during colonial administration. Muslims in Burma are not entitled to the citizenship for being non-natives and migrants.

The 1982 Citizenship Law of Myanmar which denies Rohingya-Muslims a right of citizenship is considered as “popular racism” (Zarni, 2013). Given the ethnic polarisation in Burma, the persecution against Rohingya-speaking Muslims, perhaps, has more to do with the local ethnic cleavages rather than merely meta-religious identity.

Burden of colonial history:

Burma was colonised in 1824 by the British Empire after three military offensives and was ruled as an Indian province till 1937. Some analysts have termed Burma an “artificial product of colonial rule”. Similar to its “forward policy” in Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of north India (now Pakistan), the Raj re-engineered Burma in two distinct administrative units: Ministerial Burma and Frontier Area. “Ministerial Burma” was dominated by the Burman majority, and the “Frontier Areas”, were populated by ethnic minorities.

The military has constructed a system that entrenches its independence, maintains its influence over the parliament, and establishes ‘legal’ channels for a return to direct military rule if desired.

In Ministerial Burma, a “limited form of parliamentary Home Rule” was introduced, while the ethnic minority-Frontier Areas, in contrast, were governed quite separately from Ministerial Burma and, for the most part, left under the control of traditional rulers and chiefs (Smith, 1994).

Burmese ethnic regiments were formed in British Army. Selectively, the Ministerial Burma was developed at the cost of the ‘Frontier Areas’ — also referred as ‘scheduled areas’ in British literature. This colonial machination intensively solidified the structural basis of ethnic conflicts in Burma. Diversity was strategically deployed as an instrument of subjugation leading to entrenched ethnic communalisation of the restive island.

Ironically, in WW-II, Burma was bombed by both the Master (The British) and its enemies (The Japanese). Preemptively, electrical equipment and oil installations at Yenanguang oilfields in Burma were destroyed by the Allied Force before opting for ‘strategic retreat’ in the war. Japanese forces captured Burma and kept it for four years (1942-45).

 The betrayal of Panglong:

Like 1940 resolution of Pakistan, Panglong Agreement 1947 is a foundational political treatise of post-colonial Burma. At the exit of Raj, a political settlement was achieved at Panglong Conference held on February 12, 1947 through an agreement signed by the Ministerial and Frontier Burma represented by indigenous, nationalist and ethnic leadership.

In the first Constituent Assembly of post-colonial Burma, Panglong principles were incorporated into the constitution of September 1947, which was federalist in principle. The interim government accepted the full autonomy in the internal administration for the Frontier Areas (Clause 5 – Panglong Agreement). It also agreed that, “citizens of the Frontier Areas shall enjoy rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries.”

However, the spirit of Panglong was violated when Ne Win seized power in March 1962 in a military coup and brought to an end the short era of multi-ethnic parliamentary democracy in Burma. Since then, military and quasi-military regimes have been ruling Burma quite ruthlessly.

 Trauma of transition:

Currently, Burma is in the process of underwriting its critical transition from a qausi-military government to the politics of multi-polarity which could lead to a democratically elected and accountable civilian government in the long run. Constitution becomes a key tool for peaceful transition in conflict raven country.

Burma has been run by three sets of Constitutions: 1947, 1974, and 2008. All the three constitutions are heavily influenced by the dictates of military-led centralisation and extractive authoritarianism. As a part of its ‘roadmap to democracy’, the military government of Burma promulgated a constitution for the country which was presented for a controversial referendum on May 10, 2008. This Constitution was termed a replica of former Constitutions of Thailand and Indonesia which institutionalised the political role of military by incorporating representation of military in elected houses.

From 1988 to 2011, the military ruled in Burma without a constitution. Since 2011, the regime has allowed for a transition to a more “democratic” form of government led by a civil-military coalition. The 2008 Constitution was a key part of this process. Yet, constitutional experts believe that “the form of legality it endorses is one that ensures the executive-military remains in firm control of the transition process”.

 Constitutional imperatives:

A number of legal review reports have suggested that the 2008 Constitution implicitly sanctions the military as a fourth branch of government. The Constitution allows the military to occupy 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament, and it keeps the room for the military to take over power at any time. The Commander-in-Chief’s powers in a state of emergency are absolute. The executive retains control over both the judiciary and the legislature.

While power has been transferred to a pseudo-civilian body politic, Chapter XI of the Constitution allows the NDSC to impose martial law, disband parliament and rule directly if a state of emergency is declared. The military has constructed a system that entrenches its independence, maintains its influence over the Cabinet and Parliament, and establishes ‘legal’ channels for a return to direct military rule if desired. Analysts have argued that the military has moved from a ‘hegemonic to a veto player in the new polity’.

The Joint Constitution Committee has to look into these provisions which hamper a representative civilian rule in Burma and see how competing interests can be brought together to generate consensus on key instruments of transition.

 Economy of ethnic reconciliation:

Burma is rich in natural resources; however, the control and ownership of these resources remain a major area of contestation between ethnic nationalities and central authorities. According to The Economist (2012), “Burma is rich in gas, oil and minerals with about 50m barrels of proven oil reserves and 280 billion cubic meters of gas.” The extraction of natural resources by the central authorities in partnership with foreign investors without delivering dividends to ethnic groups creates a sense of exploitation and deprivation leading to violent protests. According to Myanmar Peace Monitor, “[the] fair distribution of natural resource revenue has been raised as one of the main demands by several ethnic armed groups.”

Several studies have recommended that the peace building in Burma hinges on the implementation of power and resource sharing with the ethnic communities and ceasefire groups. Institutionalised revenue sharing and the decentralisation of power can play a pivotal role in ethnic reconciliation. Communal violence can be averted through improved inter-group relations and inclusive economic development policies, and resistance against resource extraction is best prevented through strengthened local ownership of resource management.


Burma needs a revival of the Panglong spirit to reclaim its inherent federalism. Being embedded in the national imagination, the historic Panglong can infuse new spirit of “unity in diversity” in Burma. The deliberations for a consensus constitution need to be centered on ethnic challenges as well as minority rights of different faith groups.

At political front, a massive departure is required from the last six painful decades of ethnic strife, structural violence, militarisation and ethno-religious polarisation of Burman society. Uniformed men sitting in the house of elected representatives through block allocation of seats is not going to sustain for long given the quest for democracy, federalism and decentralisation in Burma reflected through rising demand for a de jure civilian rule.

Finally, and perhaps more decisively, the new Constitution has to settle the long standing issues related to regional autonomy and ownership and control of natural resources between the center and the regional states of Burma. Perhaps, a new Constitution based on federal soul, pluralistic principles and equitable relationships can bring the lost paradise back to Burma.

Source: The News

Byline: Amjad Bhatti

April 6, 2014

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