Constitutional Reform Needed for Myanmar’s Ethnic Challenges


Myanmar has a myriad of challenges to democratic reform and economic development. At the top of the list must be its deep-seated and long-standing ethnic and religious conflicts.

Over a range of issues, experts agreed fairly consistently, in a virtual conversation I co-led on the Future of Myanmar for the World Economic Forum (WEF). Aung San Suu Kyi and others gave briefings recorded at the WEF’s 22nd East Asia Forum, in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in early June.

With 135 different ethnic groups, Myanmar has no single ethnic issue. Almost 70 percent of the 60 million people are ethnically Bamar or Burmese. Another 9 percent are Shan, and 6 percent are Karen, with other main groups being Kachin, Chin, Shah, Rakhine, Mon, Kayah (Karenni). Viewed along religious lines, almost 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, with Christians and Muslims comprising 4 percent each.

The ethnic issues are long-standing. In 1947, at the historic Panglong Conference, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San reached a historic agreement with ethnic leaders based on equal opportunity and autonomy for ethnic minorities, self-determination for member states, and later secession for the Shan and Karenni peoples. It established the foundation for an independent Union of Burma in the post-British era.

But other majority Bamar politicians took a dim view of the Agreement. Their vision was for a unitary Burma, with a single Burmese culture and Buddhist religion. Five months later, one of them assassinated Aung San. The Panglong Agreement was never implemented. In 1962, Gen. Ne Win took control in a military coup, and a Buddhist, Burmese-dominated military government has engaged in civil wars and allegedly presided over human rights abuses against ethnic minorities ever since.

Since the 1962 coup, the government and ethnic groups have signed (and violated), many ceasefire agreements. Most visibly, in June 2012, after the start of the reform process, a 17 year old ceasefire with the Kachin, in the North, broke down. (Although more recently, in May 2013, the government signed another cease-fire agreement with them).

The persistent challenge is that despite many cease-fire agreements, to date, they have not led to political dialogue. Talks need to happen on demilitarization and redeployment of troops in key areas, as well as institutional solutions that seek to afford ethnic minority rights.

Underlying all of these ethnic conflicts are two contested visions of Myanmar’s future: first, a Myanmar governed by a Burmese, Buddhist majority. Second, a Myanmar governed under “the spirit of Panglong:” a truly federal system that affords ethnic groups equality and rights of autonomy and gives member states of Burma rights of self-determination and political autonomy.

Mohammed Siddique
September 7, 2013 at 09:01

Rohingya people have been living in Burma since time immorial. There are tens of proofs that Rohingya are not only citizen of Burma but also a pure ethnic group of Burma.  They have their own culture, language and religion. 

DR.Samuel Lin
August 24, 2013 at 16:45

Rohingyas are Bangladeshis and never belong to Burmese ethnic group, period.

How we deal with these migrants of decades of living in Burma illegally is a separate issue. No matter what, humanitarism should prevail. But they are not Burmese.

The Kachins and all the other ethnic minorities have been fighting for their rights to defend themselves against the greater Burma racists that dominate Burma. We demand to be treated equally under federalism and none of us are asking for sessesion.

Joginder Singh
August 12, 2013 at 00:21

I Was in Rangoon till 1964 and till then the Bengali Muslim also called at that time Chattigaya usually come to Rangoon for their daily earning from chittagong via Arakan State which today called Rekhine state,They were not the ethnic of Burma but they are still outsider and belong to Bangladesh.They have created the same problems in Assam of India and claiming that they Indian.However India has a very strong determinaion to oust them to Bangladesh as theyare not Indan citizen. 

July 17, 2013 at 12:04

So what about this:

Just go to Burma and ask the Chinese there to go back home. The ubiquitous Chinese can be found everywhere in Burma, digging for copper and jade, laying gas/oil pipelines, … I'd be more than happy if the Chinese can "contain themselves" in China, but unfortunately Chinese have their greedy fingers all over the world, not just in Burma, but also in Laos, Cambodia, Africa, …

Yuelang Xi
July 17, 2013 at 00:42

I went to law school with the author of the article. She is Asian Aussie, not an American.

Personally, I think she is making a lot of sense…


July 16, 2013 at 19:39


I just wonder what you have written have anything to do with China? Burma is an Independent country and what is the internal conflict to do with China. The new President like to say "You foreigners have very full belly and has nothing better to do or say" and, this the long standing policy of Chinese Government not to mind other people's business.


July 16, 2013 at 03:17

China wants to split ASEAN (Peking wants to control Buram, Laos and Cambodia as vassal states), so they are using religious fanaticism and tribal ethnicism to achieve their hegemonic strategic goals. Peking considers the periphery as populated by barbaric nomadic tribes that need the coercive care and gentle goadance of the superior Han civilisation. Just read Sun-Tzu: "let the barbarians fight each other, so tha we win". The biggest ethnic insurgetnt army, the 25,000 man strong USWA (United State Wa Army) is basically a PLA-proxy, armed with fancy Chinese attack helicopters and tanks. (Shans are also not sure about how to deal with the UWSA). Panglong is so yesterday!

About Rohingyas: none of the 135 ethnic groups (what a joke, how do you classify them, DNA testing) show any sympathy for the "illegal Bengalis" although there are probably five times more illegal immigrants from China than from Bangladesh  (typical Burmese double-standard-hypocrisy).

About anti-Musli riots: I will wait and see who will be buying up propert in the areas where the Muslims used to live (ll the houses burned down nicely!). Probably Chinese-backed "developers". It's not a coincidence that Kyukphru, Meikhtila, Lashio all lie strategically along the gas/oil pipeline and the accompanying railway ine (to be built soon to aid Chinese immigration and settlement in Burma proper) from Yunnan to the Chinese naval base on the Bay of Bengal.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
July 15, 2013 at 17:42

I recommend the United States mind its own business. 

I am very sorry about the Rohingya people and their terrible misfortunes. But Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh are better-positioned than the US to assist them. And those nations are doing squat for those refugees. 

It's just a thought. Maybe now is not the best time for Americans to nag Burmese. 

July 15, 2013 at 12:46

Do Burmanese really want to solve the ethnic issue at all?  Aside from mass expulsion and ethnic cleansing of course.  Ethnic cleansing is currently seen as the superior alternative to peaceful co-existance.

The reason for this lackluster response in the first place is that no-one is interested in the welfare of the muslim minority, and indeed, certain sections of Burmanese society are hostile against their presence.  The anti-Muslim movement is not the cause, but a symptom of the underlying ills of Burmanese society.

A peace activist turned politician does not have a pre-requisite have to be tolerant or understanding of things beyond their scope.  Doubly so, when a suggestion that champions human rights is regarded as electoral suicide.

Important figures in history, are usually revealed to not be the infalliable human of legend, but characters with deep flaws and distasteful worldviews.

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