ETHNIC NATIONALITIES’ MISPLACED OPTIMISM: Bamar stakeholders have no political will for equitable federalism

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Sai Wansai

When UN Secretary-General on March 23 called a cease-fire for all global conflicts in order to effectively combat the coronavirus pandemic which is threatening the existence of mankind, many in Burma or Myanmar, were in an upbeat mood speculating that another chance of countrywide ceasefire might be in the making.

But the optimism is short-lived as on the very same day, the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, either influenced by the Military or Tatmadaw, or agreed to its hard-line, total elimination policy doled out two announcements, to get rid of the Arakan Army (AA) by all means.

Accordingly, two announcements 1/2020, dated March 23, of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Anti-Terrorism Central Committee which included Declaration of Unlawful Association and Declaration of Terrorist Group were made respectively, solely directed at the AA. The former was signed by Home Minister Lieutenant General Soe Htut and latter by Chairman of Anti-Terrorism Central Committee. 

And as if to make its point the home ministry, which is administered by the Tatmadaw, sued the journalists from Naranjara, Voice of Myanmar (VOM) and Khit Thit for publishing interviews with an AA spokesperson Khine Thukha. After the intervention of the Myanmar Press Council on behalf of the   journalists, the VOM editor who was in custody for 10 days was released on April 9 evening reportedly for lack of evidence, while the fate of the two who are in hiding is still unknown at this writing.

The point is that by issuing the two said announcements, suing and arresting the VOM editor, the Military sent an unmistakable rejection signal regarding the UN secretary-general’s ceasefire call initiative, by making use of anti-terrorism law while showing that it has decided on war path than reconciliation.

Later on April 1, Tatmadaw’s spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun out-rightly dismissed the UN secretary-general initiative call saying that it is not necessary to announce unilateral ceasefire to deal with Covid-19.

He said: “Covid-19 is a national concern. I respect these parties interest in it but this is not practical. In implementation process, it is more practical (to observe) whether the rules are followed or not.”

He said the government declared a unilateral ceasefire for nine months last year in some areas of the country, but the truce went unheeded and fighting continued, implying that nothing would come out of the unilateral ceasefire if it is again announced.

Moreover, the ongoing offensives in Arakan and Shan states against the AA, Kokang or Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) at the height of coronavirus pandemic, including the Tatmadaw’s ultimatum to evict the AA from Kachin Independence Army (KIA)-controlled areas indicated that countrywide ceasefire isn’t in its agenda.

But the lack of cooperation from the part of the Military is not limited to just the UN call for global ceasefire in conflict infested areas of the world. While it does give lip-service to democratization and building of a federal union, in practical terms it is only interested to pursue its group survival and supremacy aspirations in Burma’s political arena.

In this respect, we could briefly look at the two existing tracks – constitutional amendment within the parliamentary system and nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA)-based peace processwhich are meant to achieve reconciliation and political settlement in which the contenders are the ethnic nationalities, the Bamar political class and the Military.

Constitutional amendment within the parliamentary system

NLD came into the office after a landslide win in 2014 November elections with the promise to amend the constitution and push out the Military from political arena, under the slogan of “Time for change”.

But the NLD government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, did not touch the issue for four years but instead only solicited the Tatmadaw by currying favors, employing many of its technocrats in government’s leading positions. In doing so, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD effectively sidelined the ethnic political parties (EPPs) to an extent that the previously comrade-in-arms attitude that   existed during the military junta oppressive years dissipated into the the thin air, harboring distrust and animosity implying that the NLD is no different than the Military, where implementing the rights of ethnic self-determination is concerned.

And when finally, the NLD-dominated 45-member constitutional amendment joint committee tabled its 114 points proposal, which did not include a single EEPs’ proposal, the move totally and miserably failed, due to the Military’s veto power. 

The amendment is only possible if more than 75 percent MP votes could be secure. According to the constitution the Military is allotted with 25 percent appointed seats in the parliament. The voting on the amendment was carried out from March 10 to 20.

In sum, the NLD effort to limit the Military’s political clout within the parliament by reducing its constitutionally guaranteed 25 percent MP representative to just 5 percent in three legislature period spanning 15 years; lowering the 75 voting threshold by not allowing the appointed Military MPs to vote in any constitutional amendment bill; limiting the powers of commander-in-chief to become answerable to the president and so on were all blocked by 25 percent Military MPs and  some 6 percent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which together formed a military voting bloc; and so on were able to shoot down all the NLD amendment proposals.

The NLD with its 59 percent vote, even if some 11 percent of the EPPs will be combined, won’t have a chance to overcome the 75 percent vote ceiling. And it is not a wonder that the NLD deliberations came to naught.

Many are of the opinion that the NLD move was just to show that it tried to live up to its election manifesto of amending the constitution, even though it knows that nothing will come out of it.

Thus, democratization reform through parliamentary channel becomes a non-starter, unless the NLD is bold enough to circumvent the constitutional amendment procedure prescribed in 2008 military-drafted Constitution. According to it,  a call for a referendum through a proposed bill to determine the pro or contra of the constitution in the parliament only needs a simple majority of 51 percent, as suggested by the late U Ko Ni. He was assassinated in January 2017, in broad daylight probably due to its suggestion of pointing out the parliamentary law loop holes was also the NLD legal advisor until his death. 

But by all account, the NLD and specifically Aung San Suu Kyi will not tread this path either because the party is satisfied with such limited power or wouldn’t care less of the ethnic push for genuine acceptable federalism, as it is in the same ideological boat with the Tatmadaw where aspirations of unitary with Bamar supremacy system is concerned.

NCA-based peace process

The NCA-based peace process is handicapped from the outset as it was hijacked by the then Thein Sein government before it was able to reach maturity. 

According to KIA’s General Gun Maw, a joint implementation body, equally made up of the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and government, including the Military, should be formed to direct the NCA-based peace process. But this proposal was shot down and instead Joint Implementation Coordinating Meeting (JICM) was formed to meet from time to time, which in effect is meant to undercut the EAOs decision-making power to be on the same level with the government.

Thein Sein was in a hurry as it sensed that his administration won’t be around for the next term. And so the NCA draft was hijacked, made it as if it was government’s own and invitations were sent out to all 15 EAOs but only 8 responded to it; and on 15 October 2015 a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) was signed. The left out 7 EAOs later banded together to become Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) and until today have refused to sign the NCA and joined the peace process. 

The FPNCC while a political alliance with the most fire powers fielding some 80 percent of the whole EAO forces combined is estimated to field some 80 to 100,000 troops.

To date, as military alliance, there is the Three Brotherhood Alliance made up of AA, MNDAA and TNLA; and Northern Alliance-Burma (NA-B) with the KIA added to  the Three Brotherhood Alliance, which was formed a few years ahead of the Three Brotherhood Alliance. The NA-B is since more than a year not in operation, as KIA is negotiating for a possible bilateral ceasefire and the return of its internally displaced persons to their homesteads. Ironically, the ongoing bilateral ceasefire talks is conducted within the mold of NA-B, claiming that either it is done together that includes all four members or not at all.

And while the bilateral ceasefire talks have been held for four times, with the last being in Kengtung, in December,  with the NA-B, nothing concrete has been reached except the agreement to meet again, which has been postponed due to the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic until today. In between, the on and off armed conflict goes on in northern Shan and Arakan states.

The problem with the NCA-based peace process track is not only hindered by the exclusion of the FPNCC, but deliberation with the NCA-signatory EAOs is in fact regressing, given the depletion of trust between the government, specifically the Military, as it repeatedly clashes with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and Karen National Union (KNU) during the nearly 5 years after the signing NCA.

The clashes with the RCSS is due to Military accusation that it strays out of its designated areas, which was rejected arguing that there were no such demarcation arrangement, while the armed engagements with the KNU is that the Military’s road-building in KNU-controlled areas, which the Military said was necessary for its logistical needs to resupply its troops, the KNU sees it as a breach of NCA and has military advantage meaning for the Military. 

The clashes with the KNU have contaminated the peace process atmosphere so much that it withdrew from the formal NCA-based peace negotiation process since nearly two years. It is now in the process of revamping it but so far bogged down by the Covid-19 pandemic and also other factors like different interpretation of the NCA.

The KNU reported that they had nearly 60 clashes with the Burma Army in the first three months of 2020, creating insecurity and instability for nearly 2,800 villagers from 30 communities, according to the recent report of Karen Information Center.

It is also important to note that the RCSS and KNU are two leading EAOs within the ranks of NCA-signatories.

Thus, this second track of peace-making is also not bringing anywhere near to reconciliation, much less political settlement and the establishment of a federal union, which all could live with it.

Is there a way out?

The ethnic bloc, EAOs and EPPs, have been appealing to the Bamar political class and the Military to be aware of the “cause”, which in this sense is Panglong Agreement of 1947.

Actually, Panglong Agreement is the genesis of 1948 Union of Burma formation and without it there won’t be a country called Burma or Myanmar today. In other words, the “cause” Panglong creates the “effect” Union of Burma. 

And as it is a well known fact that cause and effect are inseparable, which are in fact the head and tail of a coin. Thus,  disregarding Panglong Agreement and its promises but attempting to just keep the “Union” will not be able to succeed, which successive Bamar rulers have been trying all along to achieve without success. The existence of some 20 ethnic resistance forces which are spread out in all ethnic states should be the stark reminder and testimony to it.

Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish writer widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language, and one of the world’s pre-eminent novelists of 16th century, said: “Take away the cause, and the effect ceases.” 

As it is, the NLD and as well the Military are only promoting the Panglong Spirit but not the agreement and its promises. The Bamar political class and Military are on the same wavelength where the emergence of the country concept is concerned. They, rightly or wrongly, are consumed and convinced by the argument that today’s Burma stems from successive Burmese empires and the ethnic states and their population have been a kind of their colonial subjects from time  immemorable, even though they never have openly admitted to harbor such attitude. But for the ethnic nationalities the country is a new political entity forged by virtue of 1947 Panglong Agreement where all ethnic nationalities, including the Bamar, are to be equal within the mold of a federal union.

Sadly, deep down inside this historical legacy and reality are rejected, although lip-service were  reluctantly given in form of agreement to form a democratic federal union by both Bamar political and military camps.

The indifference to accept the cause and correct the effect is a glaring example on the part of the Bamar ruling elite, when the Military staged a coup in 1962 because the ethnic states demanded a genuine federal union structure, which was the only legal attempt within the parliament to ward off the growing ethnic political grievances that later would translate into open uprising. In a way, it is like unsuccessfully trying to wake up someone up who is pretending to be fast asleep.

To sum up, the rejection of UN ceasefire call reflects that the government’s determination to go on with its war path commitment than political dialogue and peaceful negotiation. 

Moreover, democratization and federalization through the existing parliamentary system turned out to be only a competition or tug of war on who should govern the country between the two Bamar contending stakeholders. It has nothing much to do with building an equitable federal union, as shown by the failed constitutional amendment fiasco played out recently in March.

On top of all these the NCA-based peace process that ought to amend the 2008 military-drafted Constitution is also in tatter, which now becomes a back burner in NLD political calculation as the nationwide elections draw nearer.

Finally, it is not that the powers that be in Naypyitaw doesn’t understand the grievances and unfulfilled legal bond inked between the Bamar State and ethnic nationality states, which includes the 1947 Panglong Agreement and Union of Burma Constitution. But it is only more determined to rewrite the history to its liking and aiming to come out victorious at the expense of the ethnic nationalities’ rights of self-determination.  

In short, there is no “political will” whatsoever on the part of the Bamar ruling clique to really pull through the establishment of an acceptable ethnic-territorial-based federalism as promised, where all 8 major ethnic nationalities, including minorities of all stripes, sub-ethnic groups and religious minorities countrywide, are equally represented and protected.

Given such circumstances, until the mindset of Bamar-ethnocentrism is curbed and the Bamar stakeholders ready to come down from their colonial-master-like supremacy high horse to be on equal basis with all the other ethnic nationalities, no amount of good will, optimistic appeal and persuasion will make any sense, as all such efforts will only continue to fall on deaf ears. 

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