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Myanmar's aim of becoming a federalist state remains a dream

Ethnic strife and a reluctant military impede efforts to transform nation

TOKYO -- Myanmar has revived dreams of becoming a federalist state, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father, Aung San, first floated the idea in 1947. But after 70 years, the country still faces considerable challenges in its quest to reconcile its Burman ethnic majority with an estimated 135 other ethnic groups.

While the world remains transfixed over the fate of 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees, Suu Kyi has been devoting more time on ending a festering civil war with ethnic rebel groups. In an effort to resolve the conflict -- a key goal to Suu Kyi's federalist dreams -- the government recently held the third session of the 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference in the capital of Naypyitaw.

The conference, which gathers representatives from the government, military and armed ethnic groups to try and quell tensions while outlining a possible federalist government, failed to make significant progress. But Suu Kyi was unfazed. In her closing remarks on July 16, the de facto leader promised to continue peace efforts.

Governing a country with myriad ethnic groups has not been easy. Armed conflicts between the government and disenfranchised minorities have erupted frequently since Myanmar's independence in 1948, making for the world's longest civil war.

The conflicts date back to 1947, when tensions arose between the majority Burman and minority ethnic groups. Aung San, regarded as the father of modern Myanmar and revered for breaking free from what was then the British Commonwealth, convened a meeting with minority groups in the city of Panglong in northern Shan State. There he pledged to create a federal system after independence, in which equality between all ethnic groups would be guaranteed.

But his pledge went unfulfilled, as he was assassinated shortly before independence, after which minority groups took up arms against the Burman-dominated central government. Since then, the government has been battling more than 20 rebel groups at one time or another.

The decadeslong crisis showed some signs of easing under civilian rule starting in 2011. The administration of then-President Thein Sein, who took over from the military, achieved a cease-fire with eight ethnic rebel groups, including Karen National Union, Myanmar's oldest armed organization.

In March 2016, Suu Kyi assumed leadership of the government, declaring domestic peace to be the country's top priority. Inspired by her father, she revived the Panglong conference.

But its results have been mixed. Only two rebel groups signed a recent cease-fire accord, while at least seven major groups, including the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army, have refused to join the accord and continue to skirmish with the military in border areas.

Comprehensive peace talks have failed largely because there is no clear-cut definition of what Myanmar's federal system should look like. Aung San sought independence while maintaining Burma's territorial integrity. He had wanted to let non-Burman minority groups remain largely autonomous, but left out the specifics as to how this would be done.

The biggest sticking points now revolve around military power and economic assets.

Minority groups want to maintain their own armed forces and collect their own taxes. In return, they will cease demands for independence, essentially creating multiple nations within a nation.

This is unacceptable to Myanmar's powerful military, which will only accept a federal state under the current political system. The military maintains that rebel forces should join it as members of a border security force, with other details regarding autonomy to be ironed out in future negotiations.

Myanmar's current constitution divides the country into seven regions and seven states. The regions are predominantly Burman, while other ethnic groups comprise the majorities in states.

Forming a federalist government means changing the constitution, which requires consent of more than three-fourths of the parliament. Hence, Suu Kyi's push for peace, as she is counting on support from minority ethnic factions in the states to help drive constitutional reforms.

Suu Kyi's ambitions do not stop there. She also wants to amend a clause in the constitution that bars citizens with foreign children from becoming president, an impediment that was included specifically to block her, as her two children hold foreign passports.

But skepticism exists as to whether domestic peace will allow Suu Kyi to achieve her goals. Even if the majority of the country were to rally behind her, she would need the support of the military, which comprises 25% of parliament in the form of unelected officials. Given the military's strained relations with Suu Kyi, it may be loathe to accept her version of federalism, which she has yet to define.

Also, some observers think the government may be taking the wrong tact toward achieving peace. "Economic development of the country as a whole is urgent," according to Tateshi Higuchi, former Japanese ambassador to Myanmar. If development progresses, "armed rebel groups, who would not want to be left behind, would likely compromise," he said, alluding to a backdoor approach to a lasting peace accord.

It remains to be seen whether the grand plans of the charismatic Suu Kyi pan out. Meanwhile, the future of Myanmar remains uncertain, with the civil war continuing to smolder, the country's stakeholders in disagreement, and the Rohingya refugees still in limbo.

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