Myanmar’s punctuated economic development since gaining independence in 1948 has often been framed through the shackles of ethnic conflict, authoritarianism, and neglectful governance. But as global human rights icon, and now State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi takes control of the country’s democratic transformation, she will find that the nation’s struggles are far more deep-rooted. Peace will remain elusive unless Myanmar can bridge its divisive geography.
The national story is defined by a chasm between core and periphery. The low-lying and fertile Irrawaddy River valley region includes the urban economic centers of Yangon, Mandalay, and the capital, Naypyidaw, and is largely populated by the majority Bamar ethnic group.
Meanwhile, awkward terrain on Myanmar’s fringes has encased minorities from neighboring states within the nation’s modern-day boundaries. A mountain chain to its west, rugged jungles to its northeastern border with China, and the Shan Hills on its eastern side have isolated distinct cultures and manifested separatist sentiments.
As such, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a mosaic of 135 officially recognized ethnicities (excluding the marginalized Rohingya in Rakhine state), all grouped into seven dominant minority border states, with the Bamar predominating in the seven central regions. Nation building has, as a result, been a cumbersome venture.
In 1947, Suu Kyi’s father and then de facto prime minister, General Aung San, penned an agreement granting greater autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities at the Panglong Conference, but his assassination months later meant it never came to fruition. Since then, successive state leaders have failed to forge a delicate balance between political decentralization and the military, border, and resource control requirements of state building.
As disenfranchised ethnic groups took up arms in the world’s longest-running civil war, the most promising attempt to broker peace came in October, when former president Thein Sein signed a ceasefire with eight armed-groups—though seven major insurgencies were absent.
But at a meeting tabled for August dubbed the “21st Century Panglong Conference”—between the ruling National League for Democracy party, the military and, it is hoped, representatives from all armed ethnic groups, Suu Kyi is expected to revive her father’s vision of a unified, yet devolved, nation.
“Through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union aspired to by all our countrymen,” she said during a nationwide address on Myanmar’s New Year holiday in April. “That’s why we need a constitutional amendment.”
The nation’s frontier states want more control over their economic and political affairs. And federalism may be the key to de-escalating tension with ethnic groups who feel underrepresented by the Bamar-dominant parliament and aggrieved by Naypyidaw’s central rule and military meddling.
But that may be easier said than done. Suu Kyi will require cooperation from the still powerful military, who are constitutionally entitled to 25 percent of parliamentary seats. But military leaders are likely to be reticent in ceding control over peripheral states, in order to protect their monopoly on the extraction and trade of jade, teak, and other materials in the resource-rich borderlands.
And then there is the risk that decentralization will help crystalize secessionism. The China-backed United Wa State army in the northeast, for example, already has significant military footing, and greater political powers may catalyze a push for separation. It’s an outcome Suu Kyi will be conscious of, with vocal Buddhist nationalists poised to stir discontent over state-weakening territorial losses.
Avoiding an all out disintegration of a devolved Myanmar would also require signaling considerable commitment to connect peripheral regions to the economic core and spread the nation’s now burgeoning foreign direct investment outward.
According to the UN Development Program, poverty levels are at around 26 percent of the total population, but that rate doubles in the rural areas where 70 percent of the population reside, with remote border areas significantly deprived. Constitutional adaptations may not be sufficient to overcome economic grievances unless ethnic states have a fairer share of resource extraction profits, access to social services, financing opportunities, and clear land rights.
The nation’s rickety roads and colonial era rail network will also require considerable work to radiate into the tougher terrain of the isolated border states. “[O]nly 38.9 percent of the total road network is paved, with the secondary and local road network in generally poor condition,” according to a 2014 Asian Development Bank report entitled “Myanmar: Unlocking the Potential.” Inland waterways and air transport facilities also need attention.
A unified core and periphery promises many national dividends—from enhancing the democratic process and connecting markets, labor, and industries, to stabilizing restive borders for trade. But while Suu Kyi has made peace the NLD’s “first responsibility,” the federalist model will need to be closely and rapidly synchronized with plans to spread economic opportunities if the ethnic frontier is to have a vested interest in an integrated Myanmar.
And so, as Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw get to work, just like leaders before them, they must face the nation’s age-old conundrum—how to create autonomy, whilst also achieving unity.
Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist, and received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, the Guardian and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.