Myanmar’s struggle for democracy and federalism has spanned 75 years since its independence in 1948, and it remains an ongoing challenge. The country requires an acceptable constitution that addresses the needs and aspirations of different ethnic groups, the military, and political parties.
The coup in 2021 has provided an opportunity to discuss a shared vision for the future constitution through the Federal Democracy Charter, which has been agreed upon by key political parties, revolution forces and ethnic resistance organisations. However, it appears that the future federalism system in the country will predominantly rely on an asymmetric federalism model and a decentralized form of governance with a relatively weak central government.
The revolution forces are advocating for a transition period and transitional justice to hold the Myanmar military accountable for their long history of crimes and violence against the people. Compounded by the political and economic crisis, nearly half of the population in Myanmar currently lives below the poverty line, making it challenging for them to financially support the revolution. Meanwhile, the military has increased its budget to suppress the revolution forces, leading to a radicalized atmosphere on both sides.
The NUG (National Unity Government) has announced that they are willing to engage in dialogue with the military if they accept the Federal Democracy Charter. However, the military is seeking to maintain control over power by proposing changes to the proportional representation (PR) election system for the upcoming election. Additionally, they have disbanded political parties, including the NLD (National League for Democracy).
These developments reflect the ongoing power struggle and disagreements regarding the path towards democracy in Myanmar. The situation highlights the complexities and challenges involved in achieving a peaceful and inclusive resolution to the political crisis in the country.
Myanmar gained independence from the British by agreeing to the Panglong Agreement, which includes the principles of self-determination, self-administration, democracy, and federalism. Subsequently, Kachin, Karenni, Kayin, Chin, Bamar, Mon, Rakhine, Shan ethnic representatives, political parties including Muslim and other minorities collaborated in drafting the 1947 constitution, which included the right of secession after 10 years, and established the Union of Burma. The spirit of the constitution is rooted in the trust that existed between the leaders of the ethnic groups and the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) party leaders, particularly General Aung San and the ethnic group leaders. After implementing the 1947 constitution, Shan Leaders took the initiative to lead the process of amending the constitution, which aimed to address the inequality of financial distribution between the union and the states. During a discussion to amend the constitution, the Myanmar military assumed that the talks might lead to the ethnic groups exercising their right to secession. As a result, the military seized power from the civilian government led by U Nu and replaced it with a socialist system called the Burmese Way to Socialism in 1962 and U Nay Win ruled with one political party system till 1988.
In 1988, the military seized power from the socialist party and announced elections for 1990. However, after the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won the election, the military refused to transfer power, arrested NLD leaders, and introduced the 7-step road map. As part of this road map, the military-drafted 18 years for the 2008 constitution and secured a 25% seat allocation in parliaments. By adhering to the 2008 constitution, a general election took place in 2010, resulting in U Thein Sein becoming president through an arrangement with Senior General Than Shwe. From 2011 to 2015, U Thein Sein embarked on efforts to make the country more open and establish communication channels with Western governments. In the 2015 general election, the National League for Democracy (NLD) emerged victorious, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi assumed office by creating the role of State Counsellor, as the constitution prevented her from becoming president. Over the course of the next five years, the NLD government strived to enhance democracy and foster accountability, while also addressing economic and societal challenges through the implementation of the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan. In accordance with the roadmap outlined in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015, the NLD government pursued negotiations between the Myanmar military and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) to amend the 2008 constitution. The focus of these negotiations was on reaching a package deal agreement that encompassed the right of the state constitution and the right of secession.
2021 Military Coup
On February 1, 2021, Burma’s pro-democracy and federalist movement was halted by a military coup over alleged vote fraud. Democrats and ethnic groups, who do not accept the military’s involvement in politics, opted for an armed path to the Spring Revolution. As a result of the Spring Revolution, the Federal Democracy Charter was inaugurated on March 31, 2021, and amended in January 2022 by the First People’s Assembly. The charter represents a fresh political roadmap for Burma’s politics following the Panglong Agreement, encompassing the long-standing federal and democratic aspirations of ethnic groups. It serves as a foundation for upcoming constitutional conventions. However, further discussions are still needed to ensure that the charter adequately reflects the current ground situation and accommodates the diverse perspectives of various pro-democracy forces. This ongoing dialogue is crucial for the inclusive and comprehensive development of the charter, aligning it with the evolving needs and aspirations of the nation. Throughout the struggle for the revolution, the administrative pillar, judiciary pillar and legislature pillar will be based on the federal democratic charter.
From 2021 onwards, interim legislation during the revolutionary period will be overseen by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), led by the National League for Democracy, which won the 2020 election. It will coordinate the interim administration and judicial pillars appointed by the CRPH committee. The National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) is in the role of consultant with the regions and states or union-level negotiation with an administrative body (Interim National Unity Government -NUG) and legislative body (CRPH) but there is no direct involvement in the administration and judiciary.
Since 1988, the people’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been leading a non-violent struggle for democracy, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. However, following the 2021 coup, people came to realize that non-violent struggle for democracy was not the only option, as they had been waiting for the results of this peaceful approach while Daw Suu and her party leaders, followers, and numerous individuals were unjustly imprisoned for several years. NUG founded People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and they have a strong desire to attack the military, but it is difficult to get the weapons and ammunition needed for a real battle. Due to the emergence of many new armed groups on the ground, joint operations could not be carried out and some of the security raised the weakness of the chain of command. People do not want to negotiate with the military on the other hand, as time goes by, people’s support conditions decrease.
Myanmar Military Actions after the 2021
On the other side, the Myanmar military was transformed into a State Administration Council (SAC) and caretaker government, controlling the state bureaucracy. Furthermore, the military arrests civilians, imprisons politicians and civilians, and executes protesters. Houses are being burned and battle is being conducted on a daily basis in war-torn areas of the nation, not only with Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) that have not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), but also with People’s Defence Force (PDFs) founded by the NUG. The revolutionary organizations struggled to resist the army’s airstrikes. Many people have died as a result of these attacks. Many people have been forced to flee their houses mostly to border areas. However, negotiations are only taking place with the seven EAOs who have signed the NCA with the SAC. According to SAC-M‘s statistics, the military council controlled less than 50% of the territory which is 72 townships out of a total of 330 townships.
New country requires new vision and mentality
The political landscape has shifted since 2021, and economic changes are occurring rapidly. Establishing a trust balance between the NUG government and the ethnic armed forces, many of whom comprise the NLD party members in the revolutionary forces, is proving to be a challenging task. Nonetheless, in the current revolutionary era, it is imperative to foster new ideas and develop a fresh spirit to lay the foundation for a new state.