Federalism: Should Burma learn from Ethiopia?


That’s the question posed by a young Finnish intern at the Pyidaungsu Institute (PI) for Peace and Dialogue, Ms Sabina Saramo, in her paper, “Effective Participation of Ethnic Minorities.”


Burma and Ethiopia are considered old countries, though the former, not being recorded in the Holy Bible, is less known. According to historian Dr Than Htun (Shwebo), it used to be known as “Brahma-desa” or “Brahmadesh,” which later distorted into what is universally known today, “Bamar” or the anglicized “Burma.” “Myanmar” is said to be a later, and poetical, corruption which has nothing to do with the non- Burmans such as Shan, Kachin, Mon etc.


Both countries claim to be federal. In fact, the latter officially fashions itself as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. How federal and how democratic each is can be observed from the following table:



Ethnic groups


1,104,300 sq.km90 million



676,578 sq.km51 million

135 (official/much debated figure)



Number of states

9(divided on the basis of the settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people concerned)14(including Burman dominant “regions”)
Lower House550 seats (including at least 20 for the “minority nationalities” and “peoples”)440 seats (including 110 for the military who are appointed) 
Upper House1 from each “Nation, Nationality and People” plus 1 additional representative for each one million of its population12 from each state/region
State levelState CouncilState/Region legislatures and State/Region governments(Ethnic state/region government includes ministers for “national races” each of which has 0.1% of the total population of the Union in the state/region concerned which altogether represent some 20 “national races”)
Official languageEqual status for all languagesBurmese (Myanmar)


Federalism in multi-ethnic countries, she says, must have distinctive features such as:

  • Recognition of ethnic minorities
  • Ensuring the right of participation by ethnic minorities in decision making
  • By the right of voting
  • By measures guaranteeing ethnic representation
  • By establishing advisory and consultative bodies
  • By self-governance

“Cultural diversity (is) viewed as an asset to be celebrated and not a liability to be managed.”


Burma’s 2008 constitution, by this standards, can be said of having federal aspects, but not a federal one. It has a “good framework” but “the substance needs a reform”.


Compared to Ethiopia, it has no assurance of ethnic representation. Minorities within minorities opportunity to participate in decision-making is very small.


Moreover, Burma is far from being a democracy, because the military is still the real power in the Union.


With that conclusion, she has answered her own question: Should Burma learn from Ethiopia?

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