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Constitutional Reform Needed for Myanmar’s Ethnic Challenges

Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi have driven Myanmar’s reform process. They now need to tackle its ethnic challenges.

By Kala Mulqueeny for
Constitutional Reform Needed for Myanmar’s Ethnic Challenges
Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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.

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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.

The current 2008 Constitution does pay lip service to the idea of federalism by notionally establishing regional assemblies. However, these assemblies have no real power because the central government appoints the chief minister, and state legislatures don’t function.

Moreover, while the Constitution purports to establish some citizens’ rights, these are tempered by qualifications (for example “nothing shall prevent appointment of men to the positions that are suitable for men only”). Such rights can also be suspended during a state of emergency, which the president seems to have unlimited discretion to declare.

Some minority groups have called for a “New Panglong Agreement.” In doing so, they have postponed discussions of secession and kept their demands to calling for human rights and equality, decentralization of government, political and fiscal autonomy and true federalism. To resolve this issue and ensure lasting reform, Myanmar needs to make a federal system workable. The solution needs to be political with institutionalized protection of ethnic minority rights. That system should also allow minorities to retain customary landholdings and share in the benefits of revenues derived from natural resources located in their states. Where ethnic minorities predominate in member states, they should be afforded political and financial autonomy. All of these rights need to be entrenched within a Constitution that has a non-derogable bill of rights.

As well as these reforms, resolving Burma’s ethnic challenges needs to squarely consider its current treatment of Rohingya Muslims – a group the United Nations has called one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Myanmar has a population of about 800,000 Rohingya. They are not counted as one of the 135 ethnic minorities under the 1982 Citizenship Law, and are denied citizenship and other basic rights despite many being in Myanmar for generations.

Last year, violence and state riots in the Rakhine state broke out and has since spread, with hundreds killed, and tens of thousands displaced. Last week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called on Myanmar to give Rohingya rights of citizenship and put an end to the violence.

Without a quieting of extreme nationalist sentiment, and a solution for the Rohingya, further related violence threatens the overall reform process. It also risks further disharmony with Muslim-dominated ASEAN neighbors – Malaysia and Indonesia – which assumes increasing significance in the lead-up to Myanmar assuming the chair of ASEAN in 2014.

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The leadership of two individuals – President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi – has arguably driven the current reform process. Yet neither has fully confronted Myanmar’s ethnic challenges, leaving them the most critical, yet currently intractable, issues for Myanmar. We all have a role in recognizing the importance of resolving these issues in the current reform process and sharing with Myanmar’s people and its government, a hope for what it could ultimately become as a genuine democracy that recognized equality amongst peoples and plurality of ethnicity. Ultimately, it remains an open question as to whether the military government will make this happen.

Dr. Kala Mulqueeny is Principal Counsel, Asian Development Bank, where she leads the Law, Justice, and Development Program and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Follow her on Twitter @Kala2508. The views expressed herein are the author’s own.