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Self-determination and constitutional reform in Burma

Numerous scholars and political leaders have defined the principle of self-determination differently in various contexts. Although the concept of self-determination was first made popular by US President Woodrow Wilson in his four-point proposal to end the First World War, other politicians, including Stalin and Lenin, also wrote extensively on the subject. But almost all of them commonly expounded the principle on the basis of nation states. Their concept of self-determination, therefore, is directly related to sovereignty of, and often applied to, nation states rather than autonomy of ethnic nationalities within a nation state.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Article 1 of the United Nations Charter calls upon member states “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.  Although it talks about “self-determination of peoples”, the principle primarily applies to the nation-state as a basic unit.

For the ethnic nationalities of Burma, or Myanmar, the concept of self-determination has to be articulated and understood in the context of one country with many ethnic nationalities. The need, in fact, is to articulate a similar but separate set of principles of equal rights and self-determination that binds all the nationalities, including the majority Burman, as equal partners within a union. That is, all the ethnic nationalities must feel they equally co-own the country, and by virtue of their right to self-determination, they shall freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

This, in practice and at minimum, means that ethnic nationalities should be able to elect their own political leaders who can represent their interests; have a legal say in how natural resources in their land are extracted and wealth gained is distributed; and have the right to learn and use their own language in their own state.

Even the preservation of territorial integrity of the country must be a joint responsibility of all, not one single group, be they the majority or minority. All these principles – as the Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, etc, have long argued – must be enshrined in the constitution, whether by means of amending the one currently in force or drafting a new one as the United Nationalities Federal Council has called for.

Now that calls for amending the country’s constitution are gradually gaining momentum, it is extremely crucial that amendments are made so to address and balance the two overarching political concerns of the country – right to self-determination of ethnic nationalities, and non-disintegration of the union.

Historically, military governments, which had ruled the country by brutal force for the past 50 years, have chiefly concerned themselves with the non-disintegration aspect, but never intended to establish a real “union.” In fact, there was never really a union of Burma to disintegrate to begin with.

The priority at this juncture is to start with the establishment of a genuine union within which ethnic nationalities can coexist and their right to self-determination is constitutionally guaranteed. Thereafter, talks about how to best preserve such a union can be meaningfully continued.

Either on the surface or in essence, the fact is that a series of changes have taken place in Burma, both in the domestic political landscape and its international relations. To whose benefit these changes are taking place, of course, is another question. And, whether the current process of transition will, in the long run, sustain itself or not is largely uncertain.


Nonetheless, the international community was quick to lift almost all the economic sanctions imposed upon the country. Leaders from countries around the world have visited Naypyidaw and praised President Thein Sein and his somewhat reconciliatory tone towards the once badly-beaten oppositions. Upon announcements of the United States and European countries to resume international aid to the country, many international NGOs flooded into Rangoon, eager to plant their feet on the ground ahead of funding opportunity.

Domestically, the government was able to cut ceasefire deals with more than a dozen ethnic armed organizations without reducing or removing any of its troops stationed in ethnic areas. With political capital gained from these ceasefire deals, both the president’s office and the parliament have begun to feel some level of confidence to talk about constitutional change, although the scope and real intent of such talks are not yet known.

On a more positive note, some domestic media have also begun to talk about the need to amend the current constitution. Most ordinary people in Burma appear to understand now that some sort of autonomy for ethnic nationalities must be granted in order to eventually achieve lasting peace in the country.

Nevertheless, in the midst of persisted religious violence and persecution, many in the country and abroad are still in doubt about the intent of the country’s powerful military. Whether the government itself is behind the repeated acts of violence against a religious minority in different parts of the country is a lingering question in the minds of many Burmese citizens.

For the ethnic nationalities, the real intention of the government remains to be seen. Even if the Thein Sein administration has good intentions, the question of whether the military is on board is a matter of great concern. Thus, while ceasing the moment is often the dictum, the ethnic groups have every right to be cautious at each step during the peace negotiation process.

Despite of all these uncertain circumstances in the backdrop, a review of the current constitution must take place both in and outside parliament. If the country is to leave its past behind and move forward to the collective progress of its peoples, all stakeholders engaging in the country’s political process must think beyond who can become president in 2015, be prepared for soul-searching debates over the structure and scope of self-determination for all nationalities, and amend the country’s five-year old constitution accordingly.

After all, only a genuine constitutional reform process that allows the ethnic nationalities to play their due role, and reflecting their desire to decide their own political destiny, could herald the beginning to an end of the half-a-century-old political conflicts in Burma.

Saw Kapi directs The Salween Institute for Public Policy (www.salweeninstitute.org). He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial opinion.


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