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Myanmar grapples with federalism

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Myanmar's President Thein Sein speaks during the opening ceremony of the 5th Greater Mekong Subregion Summit at a hotel in Bangkok last December.   © Reuters

The concept of federal governance in Myanmar has been on the agenda since before the country, when it was known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948. Most recently, President Thein Sein publicly indicated that Myanmar would embrace some unspecified form of this vague term, "federalism." Aung Min, the senior minister with the unenviable task of pursuing elusive ceasefire agreements with ethnic armed groups, had previously indicated that the term "federalism" was no longer anathema to the military.

     Myanmar's former dictator Gen. Ne Win effectively banned consideration of any form of federalism after his coup in 1962. He considered it the first stage toward secession for any number of the country's myriad minorities. This ban on discussing federalism became the military mantra; the overarching goal of military rule was (and remains) national unity. The ban was a powerful deterrent to any serious consideration of devolved authority.

     Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy in 1989 adopted a party platform that included mention of some undefined form of federalism. The idea goes back to her father, late independence hero Gen. Aung San, who in 1947 indicated there should be federal governance. He left it vague -- perhaps intentionally -- and initiated the Panglong Agreement, signed that year between his government and several ethnic leaders, that led to the "union" of Burma.

     Aung San was assassinated and the agreement, which enshrined greater autonomy for key ethnic groups, never came into effect. Although Myanmar was officially known after that as the Union of Burma, it was in essence a centralized state with sub-national governments that were ineffective and limited despite their titles.

     Myanmar's junta, initially known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, began drafting a constitution in 1993 following a resounding defeat in the May 1990 elections that it subsequently annulled. At this point, it became illegal for any organization or group to draft competing documents. But various minorities and opposition groups began doing so, mostly from abroad and sometimes with the help of foreign constitutional law specialists. The degrees of local control under these drafts varied from modest to almost absolute within those ethnic state confines. Some, such as a constitutional draft by the Chin ethnic group in Myanmar's northwest, were almost poetic.

     All such efforts highlighted the perceived need among ethnic groups to maintain local cultures, histories, and religions; the central government had specifically protected the minorities and their cultures under provisions in the national constitution. But in reality, it severely diminished their role in an unacknowledged push toward cultural absorption into mainstream Myanmar.

     In order for the Thein Sein government to achieve its goal of, first, signing a national ceasefire with ethnic armed forces, and then installing national peace for the first time since independence, questions remain. What kind of federalism will be instituted? How much will it succeed in providing the protections and authority that these ethnic groups desire?  These remain vital issues.

     Some modest changes to the existing constitution, put in place in 2008, have been discussed. These include whether the leaders of the seven (ethnic minority) states and ethnic majority Burman (or Bamah) regions be chosen by their peoples through elections, or appointed (as at present) by the nation's president.

     The constitution would have to be amended to make this possible. Under the present system, such a change would require military approval. Military representatives hold 25% of seats in the national parliament, and 75% approval is required for constitutional amendments.

     Constitutional problems, however, are far more complex. How much authority should local legislatures have? How should local militias be treated, or indeed, should they exist? How "local" will local police be given that the police are under the Ministry of Home Affairs, where the minister must be an active duty military officer? How will revenues from extractive industries be treated and/or shared? What types of taxes may local authorities impose and collect, and at what levels?  

     On broader issues, questions include whether foreign aid can be provided to local organizations without central government approval. Will the education system continue to be centrally mandated, ignoring local histories, real or mythic? Will lessons be taught in local languages? Lately, there seems to have been progress on that last question under a proposed new education law. These are simply the beginnings of inquiry.

     Southeast Asia offers examples of both centralized education and movements toward decentralization. Indonesia and the Philippines have introduced massive changes in education at the local level, while Thailand has been resistant to real regional authority. None, however, offer solutions for Myanmar.

     The need for serious internal Myanmar dialogue on all these issues is essential for the state as a whole. It is also likely that the government has not yet defined in detail how far it is prepared to release authority to local legislators.

     In a highly significant act, Thein Sein on Feb. 12 signed what has been named a "Deed of Commitment for Peace and Reconciliation," promising a form of federalism for the country. He did so on the 68th anniversary of the signing of the original Panglong agreement between Aung San and ethnic leaders, now known as National Union Day. The move was far more than what critics called an act of mere symbolism. The vice presidents, speakers of parliament, 16 union ministers, 55 political party leaders, 29 ethnic affairs ministers and three lieutenant generals also signed. Although the government's hopes were of signing a national ceasefire that day were dashed, it was an unprecedented event in Myanmar history.

     Signing such a "deed of commitment" does not resolve the debate on the conditions for ceasefires or the specifics of some federal structure. But it still goes further than any other action has so far.

     The fact that significant elements of the military agree in principle to sharing some power with ethnic groups is vitally important. Perhaps the military recognizes that to achieve its goal of national unity in the face of a history of centrifugal ethnic discontent, compromises and dialogue are needed. If a national "union" of Myanmar is to be more than an official name and designation, the compromises need to be done, when possible, before this year's elections.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University, and Visiting Scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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