BURMA/MYANMAR STAKEHOLDERS’ URGENT TASK: Three key issues that ought to be on the right track in 2020 

Sai Wan Sai
Sai Wan Sai

We have been deeply sunk in civil war, or should we say ethnic conflict war, ever since the inception of Union of Burma in 1948. And as we goes into 2020, there is still no sign of ending this more than seven decades of war which has devastated the country, hindering development, national reconciliation and political settlement.

In order to have a bird’s eye view of the problem areas of the country, let us pick three core and key issues of “constitutional amendment, ethnic identity, one army and federal army,”   which are interwoven, connected to one another and examine each of the issue.

Constitutional amendment

Burma has three constitution that were drawn in 1947, 1974 and 2008.

The 1947 which was the constitution practiced since the inception of Union of Burma in 1948 was abolished in 1962 military coup, effectively ending the 14 years of parliamentary system era. In 1974, Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) drew up a one party system constitution that also ended in 1988 after the mass uprising. The present 2008, military-drafted constitution that comes into effect produced a forced coalition, civilian-military government, which is neither democratic nor federal.

Because of this the prevailing problem today is the amendment of the 2008 constitution, which the military is trying hard to block it by all means, as it sees its privileged military supremacy position is going to be threatened by such undertakings.

The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), on the other hand, gives a lot of general, verbal endorsement to change the constitution to be federal, without transparency and only said it will depend on the “Union Accord” result that would come from the nationwide ceasefire negotiation (NCA)-based peace negotiation. But in practice it is only interested to push back the military’s 25% allotted, appointed advantage quota within the parliament bits by bits, maintaining some sort of power-sharing equilibrium with the military not to rock the boat.  Its ultimate task is to promote unitary system based on strong central administration, with some federal-trappings, to pacify the ethnic nationalities.

The NLD further has been trying to amend the constitution through parliamentary track parallel to the NCA-based peace negotiation, which is also being resisted by the military bloc. This situation is ongoing and nobody is sure how it will turn out, as 2020 election is just around the corner.

As for the ethnic political parties (EPPs) and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) they are roughly for ethnic-based federal union, of which the Bamar should also be an equal state partner, together with the other seven ethnic states, which are Kachin, Shan, Karenni (Kayah), Karen, Mon, Arakan (Rakhine) and Chin.

In this respect, it maybe necessary to go back a little on why there was a military coup in 1962, and why the coup-makers propagated decades-long that federalism would lead to disintegration of the union, which is still the sole reason given for staging the coup and abolished the 1947 Union of Burma Constitution, together with the 1947 Panglong Agreement.

In fact, the Panglong Agreement is a sole legal bond between the Bamar State and the other ethnic entities of Kachin, Chin and Shan. Prior to 1948, the Kachin, Chin Hills  and the Federated Shan States are administered separately from Burma Proper or Ministerial Burma, which was comprised of Tenasserim, Arakan, Pegu and Irrawaddy divisions.

From the period of 1948 to 1962, the country was governed by a parliamentary multi-party system that was federal in form but unitary in practice. As conflict spread to many regions, this proved a far from satisfactory solution. Thus, in order to correct this constitutional flaw, a proposal to amend the 1947 constitution was developed by different nationality leaders so that the political system could be made more explicitly federal. Spearheaded by the Shan State government and ratified by the All States Unity Organization at Taunggyi in 1961, the federal proposal argued that the constitution should be amended so that Burma Proper would itself be transformed into a constituent national state like the other ethnic states. In this way, it was hoped to end the usurping by ethnic Bamar leaders of the powers of union government, which had led to the economic, political and administrative marginalization of nationality peoples in other parts of the country. (Source: “Bridging conceptual differences vital to end ethnic conflict”,  by Sai Wansai, Transnational Institute, 04 April 2016.)

The federal amendment proposal came to naught, as in March 1962 the military coup was staged, followed by the military rule, under various regime names, until 2011 when a civilan-military government was installed, according to the 2008 military-drafted constitution.

Having said that, a serious question  arise as to why the political parties in Burma are sticking to constitutional amendment drafted in 2008, instead of rewriting it anew altogether, like the Chairman of Shan Nationalities League for Democracy Hkun Tun Oo; the late U Win Tin a founder of NLD; the late U Ko Ni, architect of the State Counselor position to circumvent Aung San Suu Kyi becoming President, have all suggested.

U Ko Ni, also legal advisor to the NLD, was said to be likely murdered in January 2017 for suggesting that the way to circumvent the rigid amendment of the constitution was through simple majority voting within the parliament by holding a referendum on whether the people have confidence in the military-drafted constitution or not. In other words, a “yes” or “no” referendum on the 2008 constitution.

According to the 2008 constitution, it is next to impossible to amend, as the military holds the effective veto power with its 25% allotted, appointed MP seats in the union parliament. Any constitutional amendment has to gather more than 75% MP votes, in order to sail through the first proposal reading.

It is, of course, even more mind blogging to witness that all stakeholders are for the amendment of the constitution, which is designed to maintain the military supremacy position with a built-in civilian-military forced coalition government, when in the first place the majority of the people hasn’t been for it from the outset and the then referendum result of more than 90% affirmative result was a doctored and manipulated outcome. All know that it was carried out on the eve of devastated Nargis cyclone catastrophe, where some 140,000 people perished and it is impossible to believe that 92.5% voters actually took part in the referendum.

Thus, it is for the Bamar political class, ethnic political parties, including the EAOs, to weigh and consider, whether they should go for an all out rewriting anew or try to amend the time-consuming, unattainable federal union constitution for all stakeholders.

It goes without saying that starting with a clean slate is the way to go in rebuilding a deeply divided society such as Burma. And agreeing to amend the military-drafted constitution would mean the democratic and ethnic elements are giving in to the bullying of the military, even if they would reason that the undertaking is not to rock the boat than necessary.

Ethnic identity

Then we have the problem of ethnic identity and the question of forging common national identity for the whole country.

To start with, the ethnic nationalities’ identities, which are intertwined with ethnic rights of self-determination, have never been clearly understood or addressed by the successive Bamar-dominated powers that be.

So far as the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities are concerned they are being robbed of their rights to self-determination, including cultural identity, natural resources management and fiscal rights. In other words, the Bamar-dominated successive governments have been practicing institutionalized assimilation through Bamar ethnocentrism, popularly known as Burmanization, taking over the colonial lord mantle from the British since 1948. In a way, it could also be seen as a form of internal colonialism in which the  non-Bamar ethnic groups are exploited leading to uneven development, resulting in political and economic inequalities.

In short, because of this the forging of common national identity “Myanmar”, officially promoted by 1974 BSPP constitution,  has never taken off the ground, because equality and establishment of federal union have not taken place in earnest since 1948. And without equality, democracy and federalism in place, there is no way that a common national identity could be forged, as it will be like the wagon placed before the horse, when actually it has to be vice versa.

In the same vein, the Muslims and those who called themselves “Rohingya” that have resided for many generations in Arakan or Rakhine State are also entitled to have their own identity. It is not acceptable that they all be termed illegal immigrants and pushed them out because they may be ethnically related to the people in the neighboring country. If this is the case, why is it alright to accept the Kokangese or people of Kokang Self-Administered Zone, who have their kinship across the border in China? Why aren’t they called Han Chinese instead of Kokangese?

In this sense, the Naypyitaw rejection of “Rohingya” ethnic identity tag, arguing that it has political connotation to achieve indigenous (Taingyinthar) status and all will automatically become citizens, is absurd. Because if a John wanted to be called John, he has every right to do it, as it is his individual rights embedded in universal human rights norms. It doesn’t matter if John wants to change his name today, after many years of being known as Peter.

And according to  the late former UN general secretary Kofi Annan, who chaired Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, the 1982 citizenship laws should be drastically amended to be in line with the international norms of rights to citizenship.

In sum, the stakeholders of Burma should for now accept that the country only has various ethnic identities in place and not common national identity as perceived and the forging of it has not even started yet. The deliberations in various form, such as the NCA-based peace negotiations and debates within parliament, might find eventually find a way to resolve the problem, but still far away from achieving a common national identity for now. And this is the hard reality for this moment in time.

One army or federal army

The hard to resolve problems of either one army or federal army debate has not even really started yet in nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA)-based peace process, but the adversaries have already taken up polemic positions.

The military is determined to keep the status quo position of Bamar-dominated army without any structure alteration but the EAOs want to restructure it to become a federal army, where they can retain their armies and chip in quota-wise into a federal army for the defense of the union. For the moment it may be just a vague idea, as there has been no opportunity to discuss on the topic officially.

Regarding the issue, there has to be a combination of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR) which both sides have readily accepted it in principle.

So far as the military is concerned it is for DDR only and it wants the EAOs to disband altogether without question. But the EAOs are for SSR and eventual integration of their forces into the sub-state security apparatus and as well to contribute part of their forces into the federal army for the defense of the country.

But one sure thing is that there has to be structural alteration in the direction of federal army, as it would be impossible to strive for a federal union without having a corresponding federal army. And the stakeholders should structured their negotiations along this line, because an army dominated by one majority ethnic group, as is the case now with the domination of the ethnic Bamar majority in the army,  will not fit into a federal union administrative structure.

Concluding note

As the parliamentary debate on constitutional amendment, which the military bloc is trying to hinder, and the NCA-based peace negotiation process, which is scheduled to restart in January 2020 if all goes well, are on the same path to find political settlement to all the woes of the country. The above mentioned topics or issues, being the unavoidable core key issues, should be approached in a pragmatic manner, if we are ever to get out of this civil war pit, after more than seven decades of being at each other’s throats.

On the question of constitutional amendment, the stakeholders should be sincere to themselves whether a complete rewriting it anew or amending it is more plausible and feasible. Moreover,  if the parties involved are really for democratic federalism or just for a watered down version, where unitary system with some federal-trappings is their aim, which especially is the accusation leveled at the Bamar-dominated, civilian-military regime. If the former proposition is in agreement, political settlement will be easily achieved and if latter is the choice,  reconciliation or resolving the conflict will be an uphill battle if not at all impossible.

On the issue of ethnic identity, including the forging of common national identity, a civic nationalism kind of concept, with some intermeshing or accommodation to ethnic-nationalism concept, will have to be worked out, so that the majority of the ethnic groups will be satisfied.

Civic nationalism, is a form of nationalism identified by political philosophers who believe in an inclusive form of nationalism that adheres with traditional liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights. And ethnic-nationalism is a form of nationalism wherein the nation is defined in terms of ethnicity.

According to Margareta Mary Nikolas in her “False Opposites in Nationalism: An Examination of the Dichotomy of Civic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism in Modern Europe”: “In order for either nationalism to be fulfilled they must each adopt characteristics from one another. Civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism only provide the nature of the route towards their goal. To accomplish this journey various elements must be undertaken from the menu of options from both civic and ethnic nationalism. It is a matter of adding some of the ingredients of ethnic nationalism to the character of civic nationalism, or vice versa. The importance of the starting point of this route is one that determines the initial concept of the nation, that is, what elements are most emphasised as important to the fabric of the design of the nation. Thus a successful practice of nationalism is one where the process is an interaction of both civic and ethnic nationalism, an intermeshing of the two.”

Apart from that, the rigid 1982 citizenship law has to be amended to be in tune with universal rights of citizenship norms. And, of course, deliberations to form an accepted federal union system of government has to be agreed, which eventually will help to forge a common national identity.

And lastly, a solution to restructuring of the military should be through SSR first, followed by DDR, to be in line with the formation of a federal union that all could accept and live with.

No doubt it is a tall order, especially for those who think that they are losing out. But when one comes to think about it in humane and humanitarian terms, ethnic equality, individual liberty, and harmonious living together are only possible if egalitarianism is accepted by different societal groups within the country. And as such, all stakeholders will have to look at the “big picture” through altruistic lens and make decisions that will benefit everybody within the country and not egocentric, selfishness inclination that will prolong the agony of the people.

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