Burma/Myanmar: The Struggle for Democracy and Ethnic Rights *
Burma/Myanmar: The Struggle for Democracy and Ethnic Rights *
Abstract and Keywords
Burma presents a paradigm case in which the state is faced with the demands for democratisation and demands for ethnocultural recognition and self-government. To date, the state has failed to successfully address either challenge. This chapter explores some of the historical and political factors that explain this failure, and considers the prospects for democratic multination federalism.
Effective respect and protection of universal human rights would go a long way in meeting the needs of persons belonging to minorities.
Asbjorn Eide, UN Working Group on Minorities
Talking about the rights of minorities in Myanmar can have a strange air of unreality, for how can it make sense to articulate rights for minorities when the majority has none? Conflict over the rights of ethnic minorities in Myanmar, however, predates the overthrow of democracy, so there is a legitimate need to debate the appropriate response to ethnic demands alongside efforts to restore democratic rights to the whole people of Myanmar. Ethnic minorities in Myanmar do not assume that the restoration of democracy in Myanmar's capital will necessarily deliver what they see as their rights.
In order to understand the current debate about the relationship between democratization and minority rights in Myanmar, some historical and geographical background is required. The boundaries of the Union of Myanmar are those established by British colonial conquest. They enclose a central plains area which constitutes the ethnic Burmese or Burman heartland surrounded on the west, north and east by a horse‐shoe of rugged mountains that are home to the non‐Burman ethnic nationalities. The seven major non‐Burman ethnic groups, nationalities, or national races—the Arakanese, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon—are each identified with states of the Union within which they constitute the majority. There is a high level of consensus concerning the need for political recognition on a territorial basis (p.263) of the seven major ethnic minority groups in addition to the mainly Burman lowland center. Such a framework of course oversimplifies the reality of a multiplicity of ethnic subgroups (the military emphasizes this ethnic fragmentation, often referring to 135 ethnic groups), as well as the historical factors that distinguish the ethnopolitical perspectives of each of the seven main ethnic minority groups. It also leaves out the presence of newer ‘immigrant’ groups, such as the Indians who entered during British colonial rule, and who are mainly concentrated in the cities. Nonetheless, the basic conception of Burma as a country with an ethnic Burman heartland and seven ethnic minority states is ubiquitous in public debates.
The actual population figures and therefore the relative proportions of the eight major ethnic groups are contentious, since censuses conducted during the British and Japanese periods are regarded as incomplete and figures published since independence are seen by the non‐Burman political community as having been distorted to minimize the strength of ethnopolitical claims. The Shan and the Karen are the two largest non‐Burman ethnic groups, each with approximately 5 million. The non‐Burman ethnic groups together probably make up between a third and a half of the 55 million total.
Conflict between the dominant ethnic Burman population and the ethnic minorities (or, as they sometimes prefer to be called, ‘ethnic nationalities’) has been central to the country's troubled history since independence in 1948. It takes the form of a struggle between an assimilating centralism and the demand for recognition of the right of ethnic self‐determination.
Armed rebellion began soon after independence and by the late 1950s all of the main ethnic minority groups were in armed rebellion. The postindependence state was faced in addition by an armed communist challenge that came from disaffected leaders of the independence movement. The communist rebellion lost momentum and, weakened by loss of support from China, ended in 1989 when the ethnic armies under Communist Party control broke with their leaders and agreed to a ceasefire (Smith 1999: 374–81). The armed ethnic struggle has been substantially contained through recent ceasefire agreements but the underlying political issues remain altogether unresolved.
On top of this ethnic conflict has been overlaid a second major theme of Burma's political history, the military's overthrow of the democratically elected government in 1962 and the suppression of all individual political rights (with only brief moments of relaxation) until the present.
Burma therefore presents a paradigm case in which the state is faced simultaneously with demands for democratization and demands for ethnocultural recognition and self‐government. To date, the state has failed to deal successfully with either challenge. This chapter explores some of the historical and political factors that explain this failure, and consider the prospects for a democratic multination federalism to emerge.
The precolonial states of Southeast Asia were organized around a powerful center, power diminishing with distance from the center. There were no clear‐cut boundaries between states. Sometimes neighboring states claimed the same area, so that boundaries overlapped. There was also a hierarchy of stronger and weaker states, with overlapping sovereignties. Lesser rulers recognized stronger rulers by paying tribute (Winichakul 1994). Politics was of an interstate kind, rather than interethnic, with the relative status of different Buddhist communities (Burman, Mon, Shan etc.) reflecting the power of their centers. Sometimes there was a gap between areas claimed by two powerful states with each preferring to regard it as a kind of no‐man's‐land. This was often the case in mountainous, forest areas inhabited by upland people, who were viewed as distinct from the people of the rice‐plain kingdoms. These peripheral communities, often non‐Buddhist, were seen by the lowlanders (and sometimes saw themselves) as wild and culturally inferior (Brown 1994: 34–5).
The power of the precolonial states waxed and waned so that overlaps, buffer areas and core communities also expanded and contracted. In the period before the coming of the British, the Burmese kingdom of Ava had been expanding, drawing more of the peripheral communities under its nominal control or into tributary relationships. The arrival of the British put an end to that expansion, but at the time of the arrival of Europeans in Burma, the power of the ethnically Burman kings meant that the various people living in the central plains saw themselves as Burman, the most powerful and culturally important community (Taylor 1987: 24).
The British extended their control over Burma from India in three stages: the 1824–6 campaign led to the annexation of Arakan on Burma's western border with India and the Tenasserim region in the southeast; the 1852–3 campaign took control of lower Burma focused on the lower reaches of the Irrawaddy; the conquest was completed with the 1886–8 capture of Upper Burma and the overthrow of the Burmese kingdom centered on Mandalay. From 1888 the British consolidated their control of Burma and defined its boundaries. Control was intense in the central plains and delta area (or ‘Burma proper’), but relied on a less intense form of indirect rule in the mountainous frontier areas. In terms of ethnic politics, the British conquest had destroyed the ethnic Burman kingdom and alienated the ruling Burman elite. The British, however, largely left intact the traditional political structures of the peripheral regions. Indeed, because the British had curtailed ethnic Burman power and depredation, British influence was largely viewed by the communities in the periphery as benign.
The two administrative structures applied by the British were formalized as a distinction between ‘ministerial Burma’ in Burma proper (in which a (p.265) limited form of parliamentary self‐government was introduced and which was separated from India in 1937) and the ‘scheduled’ or ‘excluded’ (and largely neglected) frontier areas. Under the British, the old tributary relationship between the center and periphery had been replaced by a dual system, the British colonial government commanding Burma proper and the periphery by separate systems and maintaining their separateness.
There were a number of developments fostered by the British that were to have significant effects on future ethnic relations in independent Burma. First, the British recruited soldiers disproportionately from the non‐Burman communities, especially the Karen, Kachin, and Chin. Second, during British rule, Christian missionaries found willing converts and devoted followers amongst the same communities, especially, again, the Karen, Kachin, and Chin. The missionaries established a network of schools in the towns of Lower Burma into which the non‐Burman communities, especially the Karen, flocked. As a result, ‘a dangerous resentment (which has never really gone away) was to grow amongst many Burman nationalists, who were suspicious of the close relationship the alien missionaries were developing with many Karen and, later, Kachin and Chin communities…This distrust was fuelled by the Karen role in the colonial army’ (M. Smith 1999: 45).
Third, the British administration of Burma as a part of British India allowed large‐scale immigration of Indians into Burma. By the 1930s, Indians made up approximately 5 percent of the population. This figure underestimates the impact of Indian migration, since the Indian population was concentrated in major towns, such that Indians made up more than half the population of Rangoon at that time, and dominated certain trades. There was also a much smaller Chinese minority and a very much smaller European population (Taylor 1987: 126–8). The colonial economic structure, dominated by Europeans, with Indians dominating large‐scale trade and finance other than where it was held by Europeans (and petty local trade), also created a racial (or ethnic) hierarchy. As a result, ‘the main political questions in late colonial Burma were usually articulated in terms of ethnicity rather than class’ (Taylor 1987: 126). As Thant Myint‐U puts it, ‘In general…the primary cleavage in the new Burma was not to be one of class but of ethnicity, between those seen as “foreign” and those seen as “native”, and between the “native races” themselves…the vast majority…were seen as Burmese Buddhists…Old court notions of Kachins, Shans, Karens, and others largely remained, and were reinforced or somewhat changed by emergent European theories of language, race, and migration…The peculiar twentieth century divide between “Europeans”, “Indians”, the “Burmese”, and the “minorities” was firmly set' (Thant Myint‐U 2001: 243–4).
In short, the colonial period in Burma, as elsewhere in Asia, had a transformative effect on ethnic relations. It eroded the precolonial system of tributary relationships that had (unequally) linked ethnic Burmese with (p.266) the non‐Burman minorities, and reified the cultural and political distinction between the two, governing them through different systems of administration. It also played the divide and rule game, favoring certain minorities in the army, as well as migrant Indians in the economy, at the expense of the ethnic Burmese majority. The legacy was a heightened sense of antagonism and resentment that emerged during the independence struggle.
Independence, Federation and ‘Union’: The Formative Debate
During World War II the mainly ethnic‐Burman Burma Independence Army (formed outside Burma) entered Burma with the Japanese from Thailand, while the Karen and Karenni minorities along the border area sided with the British. So did the Kachin and Chin, and parts of their territory were never taken by the Japanese. In many cases the British military forces kindled the belief amongst the ethnic minorities that their support would ultimately be rewarded politically. The war thus had ethnic minorities and Burmans fully armed, often fighting on opposing sides. At the end of the war intercommunal distrust had been further heightened, and separate dreams for the future had been awakened.
Once the British government was reconciled to Burma's rapid move to independence, agreement was reached with the Anti‐Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), the party leading the nationalist movement, about the boundaries of the new state. It was agreed that the two distinct areas of Burma administered by the British—Ministerial Burma (Burma Proper) and the Frontier Areas or Excluded Areas—should be united (rather than, as had been argued in some British circles, that independence for the Frontier Areas might be ‘postponed’). Indeed, the Japanese occupation had ended the dual British administrations of ‘Burma proper’ and the ‘frontier areas’ and the pseudo‐independent Burma established in 1943 by the Japanese was a unitary state.
The AFPFL had grown out of the prewar student movement, the ‘Thakins’, who had learned Marxist ideas about imperialism especially through the writings of British and Indian socialists and Marxists. It was formed in 1944 by the ‘students’ who, in 1941 had formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA), together with the Communist Party of Burma. The BIA had received military training by the Japanese and had supported the Japanese occupation of Burma, but in early 1945, the AFPFL launched an anti‐Japanese uprising.
The AFPFL, which can be seen as representing the Burman‐led, nationalist movement, was adamantly in favor of the proposed ‘union’ of ‘Ministerial Burma’ and the Frontier Areas, but certain of the ethnic leaders within the Frontier Areas (as well as certain ethnic leaders within Ministerial Burma) were ambivalent or hostile. Thinking within the different communities was (p.267) colored by earlier experience, which in the case of the various ethnic minorities was rather diverse. The Shan, Karenni, and Karen cases were particularly formative. The Shan States and the Karenni States were recognized by the British as distinct political entities. The traditional Shan rulers had been tributaries of the Burmese kingdom and the tributary relationship was transferred to the British. When, in 1920, the British authorities moved to introduce partial self‐government in India and ‘Burma proper’, the Shan States were established nominally as a federation, removing them from the jurisdiction of the legislature, placing them more directly under the control of the British authorities, but reinforcing their appearance of being a separate entity. According to Taylor, ‘the British spent the war years planning how to consolidate the Shan States, reduce their number, make their government less autocratic, and link them to a federal Burma’ (Taylor 1994: 98). The Karenni States had been similarly recognized by the British as a distinct entity and were administered by the same authorities, under the same system, but separately from British Burma.
Of all the ethnic minorities, the Karen were the most dispersed and made up a sizable minority within ‘Burma proper’, as well as a majority in part of the eastern ‘frontier area’. With the introduction of partial self‐government in the 1920s, the Karen National Association, an educated Christian‐led political organization, demanded and won representation of Karen interests through a separate electorate. Emerging Karen nationalism, kindled in the nineteenth century by Christian missionaries, was reflected in the proposal in 1928 by the US‐educated Dr San C. Po for an ‘independent Karen State’ within some larger entity, referring to both the Swiss federation and the situation of the Welsh in Great Britain (Smith 1999: 51).
Agreement was reached between the AFPFL leadership and leaders of the Kachin, Shan, and Chin at the historic Panglong meeting of February 1947 that they should achieve independence ‘together’. The British for their part arranged for a Committee of Enquiry to ascertain whether the minorities wanted to join with Ministerial Burma, although in reality this was a fait accompli and the real issue was how the minorities wanted to relate to the coming constitution‐drafting process (FACE 1947).1 In the negotiations and discussions at the time of Panglong and the subsequent Frontier Areas Enquiry, representatives of various ethnic communities referred repeatedly to a voluntary ‘federating’ process, with demands for the ‘right of secession’.
The Independence Constitution
Probably the most formative influence over the constitution‐drafting came from within the AFPFL. At its Convention of May 1947, a draft constitution (p.268) was prepared which, in turn, became the working draft for the elected Constituent Assembly when it met from June to September 1947. The AFPFL draft was apparently the work of Thakin Mya advised by U Chan Htoon who had been appointed by Aung San in early 1947 as Constitutional Advisor to the Government of Burma and had consulted extensively with Sir B. N. Rao, constitutional advisor to the Government of India (Universities Historical Research Centre 1999: 67; Maung Maung 1961: 66).
The agenda of the AFPFL Convention included a major address by Aung San, the leader of the AFPFL. In his address, Aung San outlined his views on crucial issues at the heart of the constitutional draft, in particular the form of state to be adopted, namely a ‘union’. He dismissed questions as to whether the constitutional form should be recognized as ‘federal union’ on the grounds that the Burmese term for ‘union’ (pyidaungsu) was clearly different from ‘unitary’. The term ‘federal’, in his view, was redundant or unnecessary once one understood that a union‐state was not a unitary state.
Although he denied the need to explicitly declare the state ‘federal’, Aung San emphasized the need for satisfying the aspirations of minorities with appropriate provisions, in particular for ‘recognition’ and appropriate forms of autonomy. Aung San referred to Stalin's definition of what constituted a national minority, and argued that a union‐state should include appropriate provisions that recognized seven autonomous states (for the seven main ethnic minorities) as well as autonomous areas within these states for smaller ‘national minorities’ of various population strengths.2 In this regard Aung San referred to the prewar League of Nations recognition of national minorities where a group constituted 10 percent of total population, suggesting a more appropriate figure for Burma would be 5 percent.
The draft clearly provides for a constitutional division of powers between the union and the states, but it differs from standard federalism in important respects. In particular, the ethnic Burman heartland (i.e. Burma Proper) would not have its own federal state, but rather would be ruled directly by the central Union government. It was therefore a proposal for an asymmetrical union of Burma Proper with a series of satellite states, with conditional rights of secession for the (satellite) states.
The elected Constituent Assembly began its meeting on June 9, 1947 and U Nu became its President. On June 18, a drafting committee and subcommittees were formed and their working draft was approved by the AFPFL in May. It was the task of the Union and States Powers Subcommittee to resolve (p.269) the issue of the form of the new union. (The issue is discussed at length in Universities Historical Research Centre 1999, vol. 2: 100–4). According to this source, the subcommittee minutes show that a conscious decision was made to reject a classic federal form and instead to adopt the form proposed in the AFPFL draft. A major reason cited was economy of financial and human resources. The subcommittee submitted an interim report on July 17, just two days before Aung San was assassinated on July 19, and it seems certain that the form of the future union had been determined before his death and with his support.
Under the independence constitution adopted in 1947 for the Union of Burma, certain segments were granted the status of states with some autonomy. (Gone was the AFPFL's proposed ‘union states and autonomous states’.) The constitution established Shan, Kachin, and Karenni States, a Chin Special division (i.e. the Chins had chosen to join with what had been Ministerial Burma) and made provision for the establishment of a Karen State3. It provided the right of secession for Shan and Karenni States but only after ten years from Burma's independence. This perhaps reflected a kind of bottom‐line conditionality in the position adopted by certain ethnic participants, who could see that the draft was drifting away from the classic federalism they had anticipated towards something more centralized, and hence who wanted to reserve an exit option (Maung Maung 1990: 343–58).
It is not easy to fit the historical reality of Burma's independence constitution into any neat category. The constitutional process was not a pure federating process (though there were certainly elements of it) nor was it purely a process of decentralization (though there were elements of that too). Perhaps it is more useful to see the ‘Burma plus satellites’ scheme as, consciously or otherwise, a reversion from the British colonial ‘dual’ system to that of the old expanding Burmese kingdom's relationship between its center and its peripheral tribal areas and tributary states.
The resulting Union of Burma was certainly not a classic federal system. However, it is the popular view among ethnic minorities now that classic federalism is what was promised, and that that is what ethnic people at that time thought they were getting. So they believe now that they were cheated.
The parliament and parliamentary elections following independence were dominated by the AFPFL, until that party split in 1958. However, by the end of the parliamentary period, most of the ethnic minority communities were (p.270) already in rebellion (Smith 1999). In the convoluted circumstances of widespread leftist rebellions shortly after independence, much of the country was already in rebel hands when fighting broke out in the Karenni State in August 1948, with armed groups attempting to oust the Union government. Karen forces, demanding an extensive Karen state, seized the port city of Moulmein in September 1948. The Shan insurgency began in 1959 against the backdrop of the Union army's near full‐scale war with heavily armed KMT troops intruding into Burma in the wake of the Communist victory in China and martial law in the Shan State from 1952. The Shan rebellion was followed by the Kachin in 1961. The rebellion of the Shan and the Kachin was of important symbolic significance, because unlike the Karen and the Karenni, the Shan and Kachin had opted to join the Union of Burma at the historic Panglong meeting with the AFPFL.
In the case of the Kachin, ‘their decision to go underground had little to do with the existing [Communist] insurgencies.…Rather it was part of a growing sense of frustration, expressed by virtually all the minority peoples in Burma, with the progressively more centralized and Burmanized form of government in Rangoon, which they protested was taking little account of their opinions or needs’ (Smith 1999: 192). The Kachin (and following them, the Chin) complained of the neglect of their economic development, and Christian ethnic leaders watched U Nu's moves towards declaring Buddhism a state religion with dismay. In the case of the Shan, the main issue was the behavior of the Burma Army as a de facto occupying army.
In short, even before the military takeover, the basic terms of political coexistence between the central government (seen by the ethnic minorities as representing the Burman majority) and the ethnic minorities were already deeply and indeed violently contested.
The first military government was established in 1958 under army chief, General Ne Win, as a ‘caretaker’ government, due to the internal crisis in the elected government of Prime Minister U Nu. The military ‘caretaker’ government withdrew after the elections of 1960 that returned U Nu to power. The new government resumed discussions instigated by the non‐Burman nationalities concerning the need for a looser, more federal form of government and U Nu announced his projected formation of states for the Mon and for Arakan.4
Ne Win, who in 1959 had tried to persuade the Shan to give up once and for all their secession ‘right’, sought to justify his 1962 coup, which was (p.271) launched before the conclusion of a major federalism conference, by reference to the threat of national disintegration. The current junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) still justifies its political role as ‘preventing the disintegration of the union’.
In the aftermath of the 1962 coup, the military set out to neutralize the numerous armed insurrections, communist and ethnic, through peace talks. Overall this failed, though in the sixties, as in the fifties, there were armed groups who did find their way to ‘return to the union’, disillusioned with the pain inflicted on their community as well as their followers. In a number of cases, leaders of such groups were absorbed into the administration of ethnic states and the local economy. Their position was not easy: they were always subject to suspicion from both sides and with the declining economy it was hard for them to deliver to their communities the reward which they hoped would result from ending hostilities.
In the eyes of many ethnic people, the failure of these peace agreements was inevitable, since the military was looking for justifications to escalate its counterinsurgency war approach to dealing with opposition. While the political and economic strategy adopted by Ne Win was largely drawn from non‐Western sources, the military strategy seems to be similar to the ‘strategic hamlets’ programme being applied at that time in Vietnam and the ‘new village’ concept applied by the British earlier in Malaya (Smith 1999: 259). To support its military campaign, it was made unlawful to have any contact with the resistance groups. In ethnic areas where conflict occurred, counterinsurgency strategy involved forcibly relocating ethnic villagers. Food crops and villages were periodically destroyed so as to prevent people from remaining in areas where they could still be in contact with the insurgents. Slowly the insurgents were forced back into the mountains and jungles and into the remote border areas and the ethnic population was brought under closer government control. Under military rule, ethnic aspirations were seen as a threat to security; ethnic minority people were seen as potentially separatist insurgents, a threat to the integrity of the state, and not to be trusted in senior positions in the state structure.
Ne Win ruled from 1962 until 1974 through a revolutionary council without a constitution. Then, in 1971, under the direction of the military's Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), a new constitution was drawn up and publicly endorsed in 1974 in a carefully staged referendum. The new one‐party Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma maintained the ‘Burma Proper and satellite states’ system providing nominally autonomous ‘states’ for the non‐Burman nationalities. The ‘union’ had not become any more federal, but the new constitution did express broad agreement among the ‘big’ ethnic minority groupings—that is the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Karenni, Mon, and Arakan communities—concerning the appropriate number of ethnic satellite states.
(p.272) General Ne Win had steered Burma into an authoritarian, xenophobic autarchy. It involved systematic nationalization of the economy, and increasing economic decline. Educational institutions were also nationalized and as a result, the highly regarded Christian schools, which had provided ethnic communities an alternative to the government schools (and also provided influential positions as teachers) were brought under government control. This added a new source of minority resentment, on top of the long‐standing resentment about the political domination, military occupation, and economic neglect of the ethnic states by the ethnic‐Burman elite. Now there was resentment also of being forced to conform to the cultural straitjacket of government schools. In addition, during this period, the political freedoms of association and expression enjoyed during the parliamentary period were crushed, so opportunities to express and debate the sources of ethnic resentment were eliminated. Where educated ethnic minority individuals occupied senior positions, either in Rangoon or in the ethnic states, sooner or later they found themselves under suspicion of having sympathy or contact with insurgent groups, and through the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a new flight of such people to join the insurgent forces.
Elections were held under the 1974 constitution at national and local levels, the system allowing voters to choose between candidates endorsed by the BSPP or independent candidates. Success for independent candidates presented them with inescapable pressure to ‘join the party’. In the case of independent candidates successfully elected by ethnic constituencies, a number joined the flight to the insurgent areas.
Ironically, the military success against insurgent forces increasingly concentrated them in border areas. Despite being in serious military retreat, the rebels benefited from certain economic opportunities. As the economy of Burma declined, the cross‐border black market trade through insurgent‐controlled border areas grew. The mystique attached to the ‘ethnic revolution’, which might have been expected to have faded after so long, was reinforced by the economic success of smuggling.
1988: Military Power Reborn
Ne Win headed Burma's government under the one party constitution as President until his retirement in 1981. He retained his dominant role through his leadership of the BSPP, the military‐dominated state party, until July 23, 1988, when he resigned at the height of the 1988 popular uprising.
General Sein Lwin, a close colleague of Ne Win, was then installed as his successor but was replaced after only one month after his bloody efforts to suppress the uprising failed to overcome popular opposition. Sein Lwin was replaced in turn by Dr Maung Maung, another close colleague of Ne Win and the only civilian who had risen to preeminence in the BSPP. Dr Maung (p.273) Maung promised multiparty elections but failed to defuse popular unrest. ‘People power’ continued to grow until military Chief of Staff, General Saw Maung, in what might be called a pseudo‐coup, seized power in the name of a new military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).
The SLORC's declared purpose was to restore law and order and to hold the promised multiparty elections. Despite sweeping restrictions on political activities, political parties were allowed to register in competition with the SLORC‐supported National Unity Party (NUP) (effectively a renamed BSPP). The National League for Democracy (NLD) quickly emerged as the leading opposition party. The NLD was led by a dissident former general, Tin U, and by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, the tragically assassinated leader of the independence movement. Aung San Suu Kyi had returned to Burma in 1988 from Britain, where she lived with her British husband, to be with her sick mother. During the 1988 demonstrations and in the early period of election campaigning she emerged as a charismatic figure, spearheading attacks on Ne Win and the role of the military in politics. She was placed under house arrest on July 20, 1989 and prevented from participating in the election.
Altogether 93 political parties contested the elections, held on 27 May 1990, but the NLD succeeded in gaining 392 of 485 seats while the SLORC‐supported NUP won only 10. Of the 93 contesting parties, 36 referred in their names to their ethnic ‘constituency’ and the ethnic parties received considerable support at the 1990 elections. Among the 27 parties which won seats, 19 parties were claiming to represent ethnic groups. The 21‐party coalition of ethnic parties making up the UNLD (United Nationalities League for Democracy) won a total of 66 seats (Khin Maung Win and A. Smith 1998: 117).
Having initially given the impression of being willing to return power to the civilian winners of the election, the SLORC began openly to retreat from this position. On the eve of a meeting of victorious elected NLD members of the Pyithu Hluttaw or National Assembly, at which an amended version of the 1947 constitution was to be adopted as a provisional constitution, the SLORC issued Declaration No.1/90 stating that it held power under martial law, was not bound by any constitution, and would hold power until it had ensured that a sufficiently strong constitution was in place. By mid‐1991 the SLORC had again crippled popular political party activities in Myanmar, establishing their total control of the media and rigorous surveillance of all political activity.
Democracy and Federalism: ‘Duelling’ Constitutions
This then is the backdrop to current debates about democracy, federalism, and ethnic minority rights in Burma. We have witnessed a colonial period that exacerbated ethnic divisions and distrust; a post‐independence (p.274) constitution that was seen by some as betraying a promise to accord ‘genuine’ federalism and self‐determination to the seven main minority groups; a series of armed ethnic insurgencies that have now largely been pacified by an authoritarian military regime, although the original causes of those insurgencies remain unaddressed, and indeed may now be exacerbated by increasing government restrictions on free association and expression; and a failed democratic transition that has left a popularly elected leader and party out of power.
Even the military regime acknowledges that the status quo cannot be sustained indefinitely, in fact justifying its own role as paving the way for the emergence of a modern ‘disciplined’ democracy. Several attempts have been made, by international actors and from within the country, to move the agenda forward in the direction of a more stable political structure. In order to explain why these efforts have not yet borne fruit, we need to examine the central actors, including the mainstream opposition (the NLD); the military rulers; and the exiled opposition.
The Mainstream Opposition: the NLD
Before the May 1990 election, the NLD held a number of meetings to start drafting a new constitution that would facilitate transition to democracy following the elections. A draft was submitted to the NLD's Central Executive Committee on April 25, 1990, with further discussion and redrafting in June and July. The process identified a series of amendments to be made to the 1947 constitution that would then serve as a 1990 Transitional Constitution. The main departure from the 1947 constitution was to annul the various sections dealing with the ethnic nationalities, proposing instead that:
with authority derived from the People's Assembly, and as contained in the League's election statement as regards the ability for national races to resolve matters on their own and to held (sic) equal rights, call a National Convention and undertake to thoroughly coordinate comprehensive legislation by mutual agreement. [NLD CEC 1990]
In other words, the existing guarantees for minorities—such as Article 10 of the 1947 constitution dealing with secession—were to be abolished, but new guarantees would be negotiated ‘by mutual agreement’ on the basis of the free participation of the ethnic nationalities themselves. Since that time, the NLD has maintained this formula, that is, that dealing with the ethnic issue needs to be postponed until the ethnic groups themselves are able to be fully involved.
The views of Aung San Suu Kyi (and the NLD) are well known with regard to the need for a return to democracy and the recognition of the rule of law and of human rights in general. Their views on ethnic grievances and remedies are less well known and although Aung San Suu Kyi herself clearly (p.275) has a sophisticated appreciation of Western approaches, other NLD leaders have mainly shared Burma's isolation. Many of the senior NLD figures are ex‐Tatmadaw men, sometimes erstwhile leaders of the forces fighting ethnic insurgents, and are seen as perhaps sharing the regime view of the structure of the state, while rejecting the current regime's legitimacy.
In her message on Union Day, 1996, Aung San Suu Kyi referred back both to the principles stated by her father in 1947 concerning the rights of the ethnic nationalities, and the position adopted by the NLD in the 1989–90 election period. While the tone of the statement is undoubtedly sympathetic to the rights of the ethnic nationalities, it is regarded by many ethnic leaders in exile as frustratingly ambiguous regarding specific issues that they see as contentious. For reasons relating to the history discussed earlier, these leaders would prefer to have clear minority guarantees included as part and parcel of the democracy process—alongside human rights and rule of law—rather than as something to be left to the vagaries and uncertainties of political decision‐making once democracy is established. They fear that, as happened during the immediate post‐independence period, the ethnic Burman majority will use their numerical preponderance to privilege their interests over those of the ethnic minorities, even in a democratic system.
The Military Government: SLORC/SPDC
On July 13, 1990, Major General Khin Nyunt, First Secretary of the SLORC, repudiated earlier SLORC statements concerning its intention to recognize the outcome of the election. He suggested that neither the 1947 constitution nor the 1974 constitution was necessarily ‘suitable for the emergence of a strong government’. ‘Instead’, he proposed, ‘a new constitution was to be drafted and promulgated’—a project in which the SLORC would take a keen interest, ostensibly to protect all segments of the population, especially the nationalities and ethnic minorities' (Weller 1993: 10).
The first concrete step towards what was to become the SLORC's ‘National Convention’, however, did not emerge until after the replacement of SLORC chairman, General Saw Maung, by General Tan Shwe in April 1992. On July 10th 1992 the composition of the National Convention was announced. The 702 members had been handpicked by the SLORC and included only 99 elected representatives from the 1990 elections.
The National Convention formally opened in January 1993 charged with drawing up, not a constitution, but a set of principles on which the future constitution would be based. Many of the delegates were alarmed to find that six basic principles had already been laid down by the SLORC including ‘a leading role in politics for the military’. By the end of its third, highly orchestrated, session (September 1993) the National Convention had ‘adopted’ 104 principles proposed by the SLORC, most significantly, that military appointees would make up 25 percent of the membership of representative (p.276) bodies and reservation of the position of President to a person with a military background.5 Further sessions were convened in 1994 and 1995. The session scheduled to open on October 22, 1995 was postponed until November 28, and shortly afterwards the NLD demanded that the proceedings of the National Convention be liberalized. When this was rejected by the SLORC, the NLD began a boycott of the proceedings, leading in turn to the expulsion of the NLD by the SLORC. The NLD in protest stated its intention to develop its own version of a new constitution. On March 31, 1996 the National Convention was adjourned and the infamous Law 5/96 promulgated which outlaws constitution‐drafting activity outside the framework of the National Convention and, in addition, outlawed more or less any action which can be regarded as negative towards the National Convention and its work.6
One significant point to emerge from those early sessions was the willingness of the regime to encourage the representatives of ‘small ethnic communities’ to put forward their claims for autonomy within the territories of the big ethnic minorities. This was envisaged in the original AFPFL draft constitution (which recommended ‘autonomous areas’ for smaller minorities within the ‘autonomous states’ for the seven large minorities) but was never adopted. It has also been envisaged in the exile opposition's draft federal constitution, probably under the influence of advisors familiar with modern international norms regarding minorities.
In 1997 following the admission of Myanmar to ASEAN, the military junta was reconstructed and reemerged as the SPDC. However no further moves towards a new constitution emerged until mid‐2003.
In an unfortunate culmination of the spasmodic dialogue between the junta and the NLD that had been engineered by UN Special Representative Razali Ismael, on May 30, 2003 Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders were violently ambushed at Depayin in northern Myanmar while on a ‘meet the people’ tour. Aung San Suu Kyi herself was not hurt, though an unknown number of deaths occurred during the bloody incident. She was then placed in detention ‘for her own protection’. The incident outraged international opinion and there were demands from every quarter that Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees be released and that there should be tangible steps towards democratic reform.
In August, the junta announced another reconstruction of the government, one that transferred the position of Prime Minister from junta leader, Senior General Tan Shwe to its third most senior leader and head of military intelligence, General Khin Nyunt. Shortly afterwards, Khin Nyunt revealed a (p.277) seven step ‘road map’ to democracy, beginning with the reconvening of the National Convention. This presented all political ‘actors’ inside the country with access to Myanmar's political center with a dilemma: whether to welcome and join this new process as potentially favorable to the cause of democratization and the rights of ethnic minorities, or whether to deride and boycott it as yet another of the military's succession of political charades. The international community was faced with the same dilemma, whether to welcome it or dismiss it.
Overall, faced with assurances by the regime that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi was imminent, and that the procedures of the renewed National Convention would satisfy the NLD, there was cautious agreement between western and regional countries to welcome the National Convention and to propose what liberalizations would make it acceptable. Finally, however, the regime again demonstrated the shallowness of its assurances when the National Convention was reconvened on May 15, with no procedural reform, with Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest, and the NLD still sidelined.
This heightened the dilemma faced by various ethnic groups invited to the National Convention. In the end some ethnic actors, especially the United Nationalities Alliance of ethnic political parties, showed their solidarity with the NLD and boycotted the proceedings. Other ethnic actors, especially a group of ethnic organizations that had signed ceasefires with the regime, including notably the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) and NMSP (New Mon State Party), decided to participate. The participation of such groups was internally contentious, those favoring participation seeing it more as a chance to put ethnic demands on record rather than seriously expecting such demands to be met.
Two months later, having accepted proposals concerning the principles that should apply to defining the powers of the central government and the states, on July 9, the National Convention was again adjourned. It was reported that the National Convention Convening Committee was disturbed by the sweeping demands put forward by the ceasefire groups concerning ‘federal style’ division of powers and had urged them to reconsider. Ultimately their proposals were presented to the plenary session but only after substantial rewording. This heightened the clamor within the ceasefire groups to withdraw their participation.
In short, while the military regime has expressed a willingness to allow ethnic groups to be represented in the National Convention, and has not repudiated the idea that the seven main minority groups should have their own states, it has not (yet) done anything to actually address the underlying imbalance in power between the center and the peripheries. On the contrary, it has justified its rule precisely on the grounds that a strong central government is needed to prevent ‘national disintegration’, and so has suppressed any attempts to shift to a genuine form of autonomy for the states.
The 1988 ‘people power’ uprising marked a watershed in the civil war, for the bloody crackdown on pro‐democracy forces led many to flee to the border areas to join armed insurgent forces. The non‐Communist elements of these forces had been grouped together since 1976 in an alliance known as the National Democratic Front (NDF). This coalescence at the border of the non‐Burman nationalities and the mainly ethnic Burman democracy movement was symbolically important. The political basis of the new Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB)—the alliance forged at the end of 1988 between armed ethnic groups and pro‐democracy groups—reflected the willingness of the newly arrived exile democracy groups to support the ethnic minority vision of a future democratic and federal Burma. In 1989 the DAB set in motion a process of constitution‐drafting aimed specifically at defining the nature of the ‘genuine federalism’ demanded by the insurgent ethnic nationalities.
After SLORC overturned the 1990 elections and declared martial law, a new wave of arrests followed, including elected members of the victorious parties and in December 1990 a group of twelve elected members fled to the rebel‐controlled Thai border area to form a government in exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB). In 1992 the DAB's federal constitution‐drafting exercise was given new impetus when, at a conference with a strong international expert presence, the NCGUB declared support in principle for federalism and agreed to join the DAB constitution‐drafting process. This common commitment to a federal future was celebrated in the signing of the ‘Manerplaw Agreement’ and the formation of a new peak alliance known as the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB).7 In May 1995, the DAB constitution‐drafting committee was extended to become an NCUB committee. In addition, the Burma Lawyers Council, formed by a group of exiles in 1994, has played a highly proactive role in support.
Among leaders in exile, a great deal of learning has occurred through participation in non governmental organization (NGO)‐supported meetings, capacity‐building training and exposure trips associated with the DAB‐NCUB federal constitution‐drafting process.8 More recently there have been efforts to foster state constitution‐drafting processes also. Ethnic leaders in exile have therefore had many opportunities to develop their views and voice their main concerns about a new constitution for Burma. Their views are usually (p.279) stated in terms of how a federal constitution would need to be formulated to satisfy them. Sometimes this is stated in terms of ‘genuine federalism’ (as distinct from what they see as phony federalism, e.g. that of the 1947 Union of Burma). The result is that amongst exile groups it has become a kind of accepted orthodoxy that there is only a very narrow range of constitutional options that could satisfy ethnic requirements.
Any popular discussion of the constitutional issue in ethnic circles always produces emotional debate about a number of key issues including the secession issue. There is a similarly emotional reluctance by ethnic leaders to allow the term ‘minorities’ to be applied to them or to enter too much into discussion of ‘minority rights’, insisting instead on the language of ‘nation’ or ‘ethnic nationality’, or in some cases ‘indigenous people’, in order to be able to claim what they see as the wider rights of self‐determination of ‘peoples’. This is understandable but unfortunate as the evolving United Nations human rights provisions aimed at preventing discrimination and enhancing the situation of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities can provide a basis for achieving many of the same substantive goals as the ‘self‐determination of peoples’. In many cases, representatives of the non‐Burman ethnic nationalities proudly reject the application of the term ‘minority’ to their community, seeing this as reducing their status to that of immigrant minorities such as the Chinese and Indians.9
The DAB/NCUB draft constitution is essentially a constitution of the classic federal type, envisaging a federal union comprising ‘National States and Nationalities States’ and with provision for ‘National Autonomous Regions’ and ‘Special National Territories’. It provides for self‐determination for the states ‘in accordance with this constitution’—a phrasing that is intentionally vague (Constitution Drafting Committee of the NCUB 1998). Those responsible for drafting this constitution have learned from their NGO supporters and academic friends to treat the ‘right of secession’ as of dubious value and the draft contains no reference to secession. Whenever the draft is subjected to popular scrutiny in opposition/exile circles, however, there is invariably heated argument about the desirability and wisdom of such an omission.
The Freezing of Debate: Isolation and Repression
These then are the three main groups of actors: the mainstream opposition within Burma; the military regime; and the exile opposition that unites (p.280) outlawed pro‐democracy forces with ethnic insurgents. The first avoids taking a clear stand on minority demands for federalism and self‐determination, on the grounds that such decisions can only be made in consultation with minorities themselves after conditions of freedom and democracy have been established; the second pays lip service to the idea of an inclusive process of constitution‐drafting that includes ethnic minorities, but legitimizes its rule on the ground that strong central government is needed to prevent national disintegration; and the third is committed to the classic federalism demanded by insurgent organizations representing the big ethnic minorities as an expression of the principle of self‐determination of peoples.
Finding a way of reconciling these views would be difficult under the most auspicious conditions. But conditions today in Myanmar are not auspicious. Far from encouraging or enabling a free exchange of ideas and public deliberation, so as to find common ground amongst these contending actors, the government has firmly prohibited it, leading to a situation of intellectual isolation.
Between the 1996 adjournment of the National Convention and its reconvening in May 2004, there was a resounding constitutional silence from the regime. Under military rule, the discussion of ethnic issues is particularly sensitive. Because of the ethnic insurgency there is a total ban on contact with illegal ethnic insurgent organizations and anybody voicing ethnic issues is prima facie suspected of contacts with such organizations. While ethnic insurgents who have entered into ceasefires can be said to enjoy access to the regime, whenever substantive issues have been raised, the government has ingenuously responded that since it is a military junta, it is unable to deal with political issues. Of course, ceasefire groups and their communities are subject to the same restriction of public expression as the rest of the country.
Inside Myanmar, any public discussion of ethnic rights or constitutional issues is subject to the same repressive intolerance of public debate about all political issues that has prevailed since the 1962 military coup. The period of the 1988 uprising and, to a lesser extent the period of the 1990 election campaign, were short‐lived exceptions.
As a result, published or broadcast views about the constitutional future of Myanmar and about ethnic rights mainly emanate from pro‐democracy and ethnic exiles and are designed to extol the virtues of democracy, human rights, and federalism and to discredit the regime. Such ideas have no public dissemination inside the country (other than through external sources such as Radio Free Asia, Democratic Voice of Burma) and limited private circulation.
Years of self‐imposed isolation and continuing bureaucratic obstacles to travel have compounded the effects of political repression. Even within the elite very few people have had any opportunities for sustained exposure to the development of ideas and norms in the international community. There (p.281) is no access to a modern, analytical history, or political science course, there are few independent‐minded practicing lawyers; there is little knowledge, for example, of comparable situations either within the region or in other parts of the world. In such conditions, views about solutions to the ‘ethnic problem’ tend to reflect the well‐worn debates of the period before the military takeover or, in private, the parochial or propaganda views about specific moments in the relations between the authorities and the ethnic insurgent organizations.10
Given this rather depressing background, it is not easy to be optimistic about the future. And yet, as noted earlier, there is a surprising consensus on a framework that provides at least nominally autonomous states for the seven main ethnic minority groups. What remains contentious is the structural relationship between the mainly Burman heartland and the ethnic states. While like a number of other countries in the region, the word ‘federalism’ is seen by the current military authorities as taboo, the state does not attempt to deny the very existence of its minorities, or deny that self‐consciously ‘ethnic’ actors should be able to participate in the constitutional process. In this sense, some of the obstacles to achieving a state structure that reflects a multinational society that exist in many Asian countries do not exist in Burma.
However, if there is to be a peaceful transition to a democratic multinational state structure, certain crucial issues will need to resolved. In discussion amongst ethnic community leaders and educated ethnic people, quietly inside the country as well as more openly in the border area, besides the emphasis on the need for federalism or ‘genuine’ federalism, three main themes usually emerge: (a) ethnic states occupy an inferior position in the union; (b) ethnic leaders are not represented in national (government) leadership; and (c) ethnic rights are not respected by the government and the military.
(a) Ethnic States: The feeling is widespread among ethnic people that, due to Burman‐dominated government policies and practices, ethnic areas are either undeveloped or exploited compared with the Burman heartland. They see their areas as lacking infrastructure and economic opportunities, or as being developed only in the sense that their natural resources are extracted in such a way that the local people are by‐passed in terms of decision‐making and benefits. Worse, when development does occur in ethnic areas, local people often find themselves forcibly displaced from their land, usually with highly inadequate (or nonexistent) compensation. In short, because of a lack of real autonomy, ethnic communities see themselves as treated by successive Burman/military‐dominated governments with disdain.
(b) Ethnic Leaders: The perception of ethnic people of Myanmar is that Burmans simply assume that it is the right and responsibility of Burmans to provide national leadership. Since non‐Burman ethnic leaders see politics in primarily ethnic terms, they assume that Burman leaders should self‐consciously lead the Burman ethnic community. For Burmans, however, there is no ‘Burman’ political position and no effort to represent Burmans. For Burmans, politics cuts across ethnicity, and political organizations established by Burmans are usually presented as ‘all Burma’ or ‘all‐Myanmar’ in nature (although their perception of ‘all‐Burmese’ interests is often unconsciously shaped by their ethnic Burman background). Some non‐Burmans respond to this positively; in 1990 for example, the NLD attracted non‐Burman candidates and voters. Nevertheless it might be said that Burmans are ‘all‐Burmese nationalists’ while non‐Burmans tend to be ethnonationalists. Since ethnic leaders see political action through ethnic eyes, they assume that voters vote ethnically and fear that Burmans will inescapably dominate an elected parliament and, without special measures, will always hold (central) government power.
The question then is what sorts of special measures are required. Drawing on the independence period debate, some ethnic leaders look to the solution adopted in the 1947 constitution to provide for a strong upper house of parliament weighted in favor of the non‐Burman nationalities. This solution, however, requires that there be a single ‘Burman’ state to complete the ethnic political map of Burma as a federation of ‘equal’ ethnic states. They see this mechanism as having been thwarted by the formula adopted in the 1974 constitution, which created seven administrative divisions within the ethnic Burman heartland (‘Burma proper’), alongside the seven ethnic states. In their view, not only has the political power of their ethnic states been diluted by the creation of new subunits within the ethnic Burman heartland, but their symbolic status has also been lowered. They have been reduced to the same status as an administrative subdivision within the ethnic Burman heartland, rather than being seen as the embodiment of a right of national self‐determination that is held equally by all the major national groups in the country.
The attempt by ceasefire ethnic groups to participate in the May–July 2004 National Convention sitting seems to have been a very courageous attempt to put pro‐democratic and pro‐federal issues on the agenda (see above). The issues chosen appear to reflect their perception that it was necessary to take a fairly strong position in order to defuse the tension over their decision to participate, especially from within the harder line sections of their own organizations and communities.
(c) Ethnic Rights: Grievances specific to the treatment of ethnic communities concern discriminatory policies and practices of the state, for example, repressive language policy in education and discriminatory recruitment and (p.283) promotion in government employment, and access to economic opportunities. When discussion about the lack of ethnic rights does occur, it reflects the diverse situations in which ethnic people and ethnic areas are seen to be treated unfairly by Burmans, a Burman‐dominated state and of course the various instruments of the state, especially the army.
The language issue is of great importance to the insurgent organizations that control or have controlled territory and population. Where their control of territory has been recognized by ceasefire, as in the case of the Wa and Kachin, and where they have the will and resources to conduct their own schools, the language of schooling is in accordance with their choice—variously, their ethnic language, Burmese, English, or Chinese (in the case of the China‐border area). In the case of the New Mon State Party which has sought to defend and expand its influence beyond the pockets of territory left in its control after the ceasefire, it has had to negotiate agreements with the local authorities (with mixed success) to be able to conduct Mon language and literacy classes. Ethnic Karen growing up in Myanmar have no choice but to learn Burmese and in many cases are not able to use Karen. This is deeply resented by the Karen, not so much with regard to language use per se, since being able to use the national language is recognized as having certain practical advantages, but because they see this language shift as manipulated by the authorities to count such people officially as no longer ethnic Karen. Reaction against this practice is quite extreme in the KNU‐influenced areas of the eastern border area, where there is popular belief that this is a statistical method of genocide and is just part of a wider genocide policy. Popular opinion in the KNU‐influenced refugee camps is strongly against learning Burmese at all.
The abuse of the rights of civilians in areas of armed conflict in Myanmar, mainly ethnic areas, has been well‐documented. It appears to be so widespread and systematic that it must reflect an attitude of scornful disdain for the people, for laws, and for international law on the part of the Myanmar army, its commanders, and those responsible for its behavior in the field.11 In the end, however, abuses by the military in conflict areas concern the rights of civilians in a place and time of insurgency and civil war. The remedy appears to lie, in the long term, in retraining the armed forces to instill respect for the rights of all civilians, perhaps removing responsibility for internal security from the armed forces, and of course, addressing the causes of insurgency in order to bring about peace and reconciliation.(p.284)
Perhaps more importantly, however, it seems clear that abuse of the rights of civilians in conflict areas now extends beyond the conflict areas and, in postconflict areas, beyond the conflict into the postconflict period. The disdainful way that the Myanmar Army has arbitrarily displaced ethnic civilian populations as part of its counterinsurgency operations against ethnic insurgents, is a habit that now seems to have become the norm in the way the military authorities treat civilian populations who happen to be in the way of their needs or plans.
Everywhere, in the interests of national development, much celebrated in the government's media, the authorities seek to create or expand infrastructure. Undoubtedly this is necessary and frequently, if not always, an advantage to the local population as well as the authorities. Civilian populations are usually called on to provide labor and/or materials, all too often without payment or (in belated response to the International Labour Organization (ILO)'s anti‐forced labor campaign) with only a façade of payment. However, this approach to development also extends the disdainful displacement of people in conflict areas to displacement of people from land that is required for development. Land for infrastructure, for the endless expansion of military bases and the surrounding land required to make them self‐supporting, land for establishing commercial plantations and other economic enterprises—all such land is simply treated as owned by the state and previous occupants' rights ignored. This does not happen only in ethnic areas, but it is of greatest extent and significance in ethnic areas where development projects are fostered by the military as part of its occupation of previous conflict areas and resettling and securing the civilian population.
In short, any long‐term resolution of the ethnic conflicts in Myanmar will require not simply the creation of meaningful territorial autonomies, but also reforming the disdainful way the state treats its minority citizens on a range of issues, from resource development to power‐sharing at the center to respect for human rights. This in turn will require overcoming a long‐history of denigration, distrust, and repression and the emergence of real processes of dialogue.
The International Response:
Dialogue is a much used term when there is talk about political transformation in Myanmar. This reflects the resolutions emerging consistently from the annual UN General Assembly debates on Myanmar, which since 1994 have called for the military regime to solve the country's political problem through tripartite dialogue, dialogue with the mainstream opposition NLD and with leaders of ‘ethnic forces’. The mainstream opposition and the exile alliance groups accept this formula. In principle, in response to international diplomatic efforts, the military regime also has declared itself as willing to (p.285) enter into dialogue with the NLD, but despite several years of shuttle diplomacy by the UN Secretary General's emissaries, there is little sign of any substantive dialogue emerging. Most observers therefore conclude that there is a need for a stronger international role with regard to bringing about change. The question is, ‘how’?
To date, the international response to the twin political problems of Myanmar has been unsurprisingly, but unimaginatively, fixated on the position of Aung San Suu Kyi. While Western and regional responses to the ethnic issue have been to endorse the position put forward through the UN resolutions that Myanmar's problems should be resolved through tripartite dialogue, this endorsement has always been halfhearted on the part of both, though for different reasons.
The West's fixation on Aung San Suu Kyi and its encounters with a Burman‐dominated pro‐democracy leadership of the exile opposition, has reinforced its distaste for ethnic politics, leading Western organizations to conclude that the ethnic issue is definitely the secondary one, better postponed until there is a democratic government to deal with it. Western diplomatic observers complain of the difficulty of coming to terms with the plethora of ethnic groups and organizations, and disparate and ill‐tutored voices among them. While interested in the outcome of ceasefire negotiations, there never has been any serious Western initiative to find a solution or to initiate any alternative to the established process of bilateral ceasefire negotiations between the regime and the various ethnic insurgent organizations nor to find a way to bring representatives of ethnic minorities into the spasmodic dialogue between the NLD and the military.
Responses from official observers in the region, apprised of Myanmar's ethnic problems, tend to reflect their own view that such problems are volcanic and best dealt with firmly, perhaps in the way the SLORC/SPDC is doing (i.e. in the way they would probably do themselves) for fear of fanning separatist claims in other places in the region. Responses from more independent observers in the region, for example, regional NGOs and actively pro‐democratic political parties, tend to reflect that of the West, which as we have seen, prioritizes the democracy issue.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), seemingly best placed to influence Myanmar, and constantly troubled in its relations with the West by the adverse effect of Myanmar's regular involvement in its major meetings, has been challenged from within to adopt a more proactive stance with regard to Myanmar. However, it has always in the end stepped back from the challenge, to avoid appearing to ‘interfere’ overtly in Myanmar's internal affairs, which is seen as a basic principle of ASEAN. Therefore, it has had nothing also to offer regarding the ethnic conflict.
Thailand has from time to time applied pressure on insurgent organizations to pursue ceasefires seriously, most notably and successfully on the (p.286) NMSP in 1995 (South 2002). More recently, Thailand's Thaksin administration has both applied pressure and offered to ‘assist’ the KNU to achieve a ceasefire. The offer to assist by being actively involved in the ceasefire talks was rejected by Myanmar's military. It can be said, however, that while the Chuan government's approach was to emphasize the need for the restoration of democracy and policies going beyond the soft ASEAN approach, the succeeding Thaksin government favors very soft diplomacy and sees economic development as holding the key. One way or another, it can be inferred that the growing economic and military dependence of the SPDC on China extends to Chinese views on structuring a multiethnic state, which allow for nominal cultural rights and local autonomy so long as they do not challenge the hegemony of the ruling party.
In short, very few international or regional actors are currently pushing Myanmar to seriously address minority claims. At best, they assume that minority rights can best be dealt with after democratization has taken place. This may be a strategic error. Given the situation in Myanmar, the lengthy period under authoritarian rule, the lack of experience of public debate, the isolation of the country and its elite as well as its people from international norms, and the apparent determination of the regime to withstand and ignore international pressure, it may be necessary to search for the most hopeful seeds of dialogue. I believe that it is from the ad hoc negotiations between the military authorities and the various elements of the ethnic minorities, insurgent organizations, ceasefire groups, and community based organizations, that confidence in real dialogue is most likely to emerge. This is partly, of course, for the depressing reason that the regime shows such complete intransigence towards Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior NLD leaders (some of whom, as mentioned above, are themselves ‘defectors’ from the military leadership). On the other hand, negotiations between ethnic minorities and the military are likely to be focused on a wide range of issues of practical concern to ethnic communities but which can be discussed without calling into question the role of the military as government. This kind of dialogue could bring about realization on the part of both the military and ethnic leaders that in many cases solutions that accommodate ethnic rights and interests can be achieved through negotiated agreement, rather than by constitutional design.
Much has been made in Myanmar's opposition circles of the argument, derived from numerous other cases of political transition, about whether and how to provide the military leaders with a ‘safe exit’, in order to open up the opportunity for a political transition. There has been little discussion of the argument about how to respond to the military's determination to have itself recognized as ‘final arbiter’ concerning the shape of the future state of Myanmar. While there is good reason to recognize that the selfish interests of military leaders may need to be reckoned with, there is good reason also to (p.287) take into account the key political values that the military have appointed themselves to uphold and have used to justify their hold on power. The key issue is that of ‘the threat of disintegration of the nation’ as represented by the ethnic minorities. The ethnic issue can in that way be seen as perhaps not so much the primary as the preliminary issue, rather than the secondary one. This preliminary issue needs to be defused and finding a way to defuse the ethnic issue may in fact be a necessary condition for the military to be willing to commence substantive dialogue with politicians about political transition, when they seriously believe politicians are not to be trusted to defend the integrity of the nation.
The potentially most suitable structure to accommodate regionally concentrated ethnic minorities may well be some form of ‘federal’ or quasi‐federal structure (though the Karen in Myanmar are not much regionally concentrated). Federal structures will not automatically solve the ‘ethnic problems’ outlined above—specific forms and processes need to be designed into a federal framework to deal with such problems, and such forms and processes can very likely even be designed into the union framework of the kind Myanmar has experienced. In addition, ethnic conflicts can hardly be solved by federalism if many members of the elite (and of the larger public) are not persuaded of the need for federalism, and/or where they have competing views about the acceptability of federalism (Smith 1997). What is required from all interested parties is a willingness to explore possible models of autonomy and protection of minorities free from preconceived and dogmatic ideas about ‘the only possible solution’ (Smith 2003).
There is an emerging consciousness of the potential in this approach among both exile and ‘inside’ ethnic groups and it is also encouraging that the military was willing to countenance, even in a limited way, the contribution of the ceasefire groups to the May 2004 session of the National Convention. It may be useful for the international community to foster exploration of experiences in the region with different models of autonomy as well as emerging initiatives. It might then be possible to bring various parties from Myanmar into such discussions. For such an initiative to emerge requires an acknowledgement by many interested parties that resolving the ethnic issue is a prerequisite to any real movement towards democracy in Myanmar, rather than a desirable but secondary outcome.
(*) Burma was renamed Myanmar by the SLORC military junta in 1989. I have used the name Myanmar where I am referring to the country specifically in the period from 1989, otherwise to avoid Burma/Myanmar, I have mostly referred to Burma. I have used the word Burmese to refer to the language and the people of Burma/Myanmar and the word Burman to refer to the ethnic majority population.
(1) Karenni was outside both ‘areas’ of British Burma but also subject to the British control and was invited in to the process.
(2) For discussion of the constitution‐drafting by the AFPFL in advance of the Constituent Assembly and subsequently by the Constituent Assembly, which led to a system of regional autonomy, rather than a federation, see Maung Maung, 1961; see also Maung Maung 1990; for an ethnic viewpoint, see Lian Sakhong in ENSCC 2002. See also Universities Historical Research Centre, 1999.
(3) Because the Karen are dispersed, there was unresolved debate within the Karen community over the advantages of an autonomous (or independent) state and their recognition as a ‘minority’, as had been the case in the pre‐independence period in ‘Ministerial Burma’.
(4) It is often said in Myanmar that U Nu and Ne Win were both deeply impressed with the apparent success at that time of Tito's federal Yugoslavia.
(5) For full discussion of the outcome of the National Convention's work, see BLC 1999.
(6) The results of these sessions of the National Convention have been compiled as The Basic Principles and Detailed Basic principles Laid Down by the National Convention Plenary sessions up to March 30, 1996.
(7) At its formation, the NCUB included the NDF, DAB, NLD(liberated Area), and the NCGUB.
(8) The scope of influences can most easily be gauged by examining the pages of the Legal Issues on Burma Journal, published by the BLC and the papers published by the Technical Advisory Network of Burma with the support of the Burma Fund.
(9) The place of such minorities is beyond the scope of this paper. It is a contentious issue, the responses to which are highly emotional and not easily aligned with the Burman versus ethnic minority division, or junta versus opposition division, as becomes clear every time the situation of the Muslim Rohingya population of Arakan State is discussed.
(10) For a recent account of the state of the politics of conflict between the regime and ethnic groups, see ICG 2003.
(11) See for example the reports of the Karen Human Rights Group, the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Mon Forum published by the Human Rights Foundation of Monland. See also reports on Karen and Karenni internally displaced people by the Burma Ethnic Research Group (1998, 2000) and Risser et al. (2003) on displacement in southern Shan state.