Myanmar is a country of diversity in terms of ethnicities, languages, and religions. There are an estimated 135 indigenous ethnic groups, or more officially organized by the government. The Burmans are the majority population in the country. Other ethnicities include Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, and so on. In terms of geography, Myanmar is divided into seven states, seven regions, and one union territory (Nay Pyi Taw). Most of the population practices Buddhism, and the rest are Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and so on.
Myanmar has also had a long civil war lasting over 70 years. The conflicts between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and the ethnic armed organizations had been intense as the Tatmadaw broke the promise of the Panlong Agreement. On February 12, 1947, at Panglong, General Aung San and other leaders from Chin, Shan, and Kachin signed an agreement to form federalism. In history, Myanmar has had a 1962 Burmese coup d’état and an 8888 uprising. And now, the 2021 Myanmar coup d’état is still ongoing. Many Myanmar scholars or politicians discussed Federalism as a key to the progress of Myanmar’s democracy in terms of diversities. Therefore, in this blog, I will raise my perspectives about federalism in terms of conflict resolution in addressing democracy in Myanmar.
As Myanmar is a diverse country, I do not think federalism can bring absolute peace to the country. However, federalism could be the best strategy to bring unity among diversities. In speaking of federalism aligned with Myanmar’s democracy, a mixture of territorial federalism and ethnic federalism would be appropriate, as Myanmar is geographically and ethnically complex.
According to geography, most majority groups (Burmans) live in the dry zone of the country (middle part), and other indigenous groups live in hilly regions. In territorial federalism, the provinces should be named and recognized, and the local government should control the territory, holding important powers such as self-determination, resource sharing, and so on. There must also be the availability of natural resources. Resource distribution could be a challenge because some territories are richer than others. And it could also be a threat to secession when territories do not have adequate natural resources or capacity. Therefore, the geolocation of the territory must consider the status of infrastructure development, including transportation, utilities, communication, healthcare, education, and more. The power must be exercised over a given geographic region by the federal government, which includes the executive, legislative, and judicial systems. Within the territory, there is no special right for any ethnicity or community, and principles of equality must be considered.
Within territorial federalism, each state must have a degree of autonomy and decision-making authority so that individual states or regions within a federal system could have the right to govern their own internal affairs without any external interference.
Myanmar has 135 ethnic groups or more. Therefore, the union government (center) should accept the form of ethnical federalism where territory is replaced by the all-inclusive peaceful coexistence of a multicultural society, where each ethnic group is completely represented in the federal state. This is based on the recognition of the dominant ethnic community and the detailed understanding of minorities. Each province must be named in terms of their ethnicities. And there is also the availability of customary practices within the dominant ethnic community and their acceptability by other minorities. In terms of natural resource sharing, natural resources must be shared with other ethnic communities, both within and beyond the region. In Myanmar, Burmans are the majority ethnic group, and burmanization has influenced the country. As a result, many scholars have discussed that the formation of a Burman state might be the solution to reduce the burmanization within the country. However, this also brings into question which states should be considered Burman states or how territories can be divided, as Burmans live in almost every region of the country.
Within ethnical federalism, each ethnic group must have the rights of the people of a state to govern themselves to a certain extent and make decisions on internal matters politically, economically, socially, and culturally.
For Myanmar’s democracy, there are basically two pathways for the possibility of federalism: coming together or holding together. In holding together, the central government will play a stronger role. However, in coming together, the central power is decentralized, where all states or provinces are equal. In my opinion, coming together in federalism at least creates an opportunity to bring cooperation among different ethnic groups, to eliminate discrimination among divergent groups, or to protect the fundamental rights and interests of minority groups. And recognition of territories and ethnicities is the key to success in bringing peace within the country. In Myanmar, the military coup is ongoing, and the concept of federalism is still debating whether it could bring peaceful coexistence or not. And since the coup, the army revolutionary groups have emerged from different regions within the country, and the common goal is to remove the dictatorship (Tatmadaw) from the central government and to build a federal democratic country with unity.
Lynn, N. H. (2017, March 9). Panglong, then and now, and the promise of peace. Frontier Myanmar. https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/panglong-then-and-now-and-the-promise-of-peace/
Pritzker Legal Research Center. (n.d.). Pritzker Legal Research Center: Myanmar: Center for International Human Rights: Population, ethnic groups, and languages. Population, Ethnic Groups, and Languages – Myanmar: Center for International Human Rights – Pritzker Legal Research Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. https://library.law.northwestern.edu/myanmar/population#:~:text=The%20government%20officially%20recognizes%20135,%2C%20Mon%2C%20Rakhine%20and%20Shan
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