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An asymmetrical federal governance model for Myanmar

Guest contributor

Moe Gyo

The political environment after the 2021 military coup has brought about a new sense of awareness of the distinctiveness of various ethnic groups in Myanmar and raises questions concerning their relationship with both a union government and the dominant ethnic Bamar majority. 

This is especially true given the past history of persistent adverse relationships with the Bamar-dominated military over the past 75 years.

As the Spring Revolution progresses forward toward a post-conflict period, discussions among various stakeholders, focus upon the best type of governance model for Myanmar as a whole and for the various ethnic groups individually. 

In this respect, the default option continues to be a federal democratic union with a symmetry of reciprocal power sharing between the union and sub-union levels of government. 

Other governance models have not been considered due to a historic cognizant bias toward the symmetrical federal democratic union and a fear by the dominant Bamar and Shan ethnic groups that any other governance model would lead to a breakup of the country. 

Furthermore, over recent decades some Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) have established parallel governments in the territories and populations under their control. 

Other EAOs have received de facto recognition of their governance of territories and populations by the Union government by allowing them, through ceasefire agreements and concessions, to maintain sizable military forces, taxation authority, and other typical governance functions normally attributable to a national level government. 

These arrangements, along with recent expansion of territories, populations, and access to natural resources and other revenue-generating opportunities by some EAOs, provide them and their respective ethnic homelands with strong bargaining power in any future political discussions about a governance model for Myanmar.

In these respects, the most common governance models to provide greater self-autonomy and “hold together the territories and populations together” are:

  • Symmetrical federalism in Myanmar
  • Independence in a confederal relationship with Myanmar
  • Asymmetrical federalism in Myanmar

Symmetrical federalism is a governance system where all the states and regions in Myanmar have the same reciprocal powers, as the other states and regions, with the union government. 

This governance model ignores the reality of a country with very heterogeneous populations, diverse languages, cultures, and religions. There’s been a history of oppression by the majority ethnic Bamar and its military, broken agreements and promises. 

A new awakening by some ethnic minorities that a federal democratic union, in the form of symmetrical power sharing, will not lead to sustainable peace for their respective ethnic peoples. 

Furthermore, the United Wa State Party (UWSP) has stated that it does not wish symmetry in its relationship with the union government and only cede the defense of Myanmar’s borders and diplomatic relationships to the union government. 

In the same manner, the United League of Arakan (ULA) has also stated that it seeks, as a bottom line, a confederal relationship with the union government. These are the realities which also doom any symmetrical federation governance structure for Myanmar in the form of the consistently proffered federal democratic union of Myanmar.

The ULA strives for a confederal relationship with Myanmar. Yet a confederal relationship is a political treaty between independent countries to share specific competences usually of an economic and social nature without relinquishing their sovereignty. 

Moreover, once independence is achieved from a country which oppresses its minorities, there are no logical reasons why any minority group would seek to re-establish a confederal relationship with them.  

In recent times, there has been the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and the Slovakia Republic, and the not so peaceful split of East Timor from Indonesia, South Sudan from Sudan, and the former constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia. 

All became independent and sovereign, and did not choose to enter into a confederal relationship with their former states. Thus, this option of independence in a confederal relationship with Myanmar is not a viable governance model to “hold together the territories and populations” in Myanmar.

There may be situations in which there is deep distrust between subnational political units and the national political unit based upon their previous unhappy experiences of being joined together in a close political governance arrangement. 

There may have been, and may continue to be, memories of discrimination or persecution such that the concept of an asymmetrical federation can be viewed positively. 

An asymmetrical federation can provide the opportunity to re-establish some form of a more flexible political union between the national political unit and those subnational political units which are highly-sensitive of their rights and status, profoundly wary of the national political unit, and considering splitting apart from the country as a whole because of mutually incompatible claims.

In an asymmetrical federal system, each component sub-national political unit would have about it a unique feature or set of features which would separate its interests, in important ways, from those of any other subnational political unit or the federal system considered as a whole.

These differences can exist both vertically (between the national political unit and sub-national political units) and horizontally (among the sub-national political units themselves). 

In these situations, asymmetric federalism offers different levels of power or self-autonomy to these subnational political units within the overall governance structure of the country.

Asymmetry allows a sub-national political unit to decide what type of reciprocal relationship it desires in certain sectors with the national political unit. This relationship can include differences in political, administrative, judicial, and fiscal arrangements between the sub-national political unit and the national unit in an asymmetrical federation.  

A sub-national political unit can decide that it wishes to retain absolute authority over particular political, economic, social, or security sectors or on the other hand, share or delegate that authority to the national political unit.

However, there is an overarching need to ensure that a sub-national political unit has the capacity to exercise the authority conferred on it. Capacity requires consideration of its ability to govern; the effectiveness and integrity of its institutions; and, the adequacy of its fiscal resources. 

It is important to note that the constitutional court or a national supreme court of an asymmetrical federation has the exclusive jurisdiction to decide any dispute that arises under the national constitution between subnational political units, between the national political unit and a sub-national political unit or units, and whether any provision of a sub-national political unit’s constitution or law is consistent with the national constitution. 

In most federations, there is a clear effort to ensure the independence from influence of the constitutional/supreme courts especially by those within the national political unit seeking rulings or interpretations favoring the national political unit.

While asymmetry can provide a sub-national political unit with a high degree of autonomy, it does not offset the integration of that sub-national political unit into a federal system. Thus, “self-autonomy” does not mean independent nationhood, but measures of self-autonomy in selected social, economic, political, and possibly security sectors within a greater federation. 

Asymmetrical federalism can be used as a unifying force between a national government and its subnational political units through practicing and respecting, in its constitution, laws, and other facets of the country’s life, the diversities within the various subnational political units. 

By accommodating regional, language, religious, ethnic, and cultural differences, the country as a whole can be allowed to evolve with each constituent sub-national political unit proceeding at its own pace and following its own path. 

An asymmetrical constitutional framework aims to maintain national stability, and governance through recognizing unity in diversity while deflecting the “secession potential” of particular minorities or majorities. 

In this respect, asymmetrical federation has been adopted, in different forms, over recent years by India, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, Italy, Belgium, Russia, Spain, the U.K., and Canada.

Asymmetrical federalism offers the opportunity for Myanmar to return to the “Panglong Promises and Spirit” and meet many of the self-autonomy aspirations of some of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups while mitigating considerations for secession. 

Furthermore, it provides the foundation for confidence-building measures between the Bamar and the other ethnic people which may eventually lead to sustainable peace within a later symmetrical federal union. 

Furthermore, asymmetrical federalism can provide security guarantees to subnational political units in Myanmar through the absence of Union military forces and the maintenance of strong local military security forces in their territories. 

Thus, should the Bamar and a “reformed military” fail to honor the asymmetrical constitutional arrangements, the asymmetrical sub-union political units are better equipped with their own military forces to defend themselves, have developed the requisite political, administrative, legislative, and judicial experience and skills to manage their own key affairs, and thus, can move forward toward full and complete sovereignty and independence from Myanmar.

Moe Gyo is a political consultant and strategist working on the Thailand-Myanmar border. 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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