May 13, 2005

Ethnicity and Federalism

Ethnicity and Federalism: A Case for Burma

By -- Saw Kapi and Naw May Oo

Burma, one of the many multi-ethnic countries of the Third World, is faced with two fundamental political problems that have kept her away from lasting peace and prosperity. The first one is the lacking of democratic governance in the country. The second and more deeply-rooted one is half-a-century long civil guerrilla war between diverse ethnic armed resistance groups and the central government. This paper will briefly discuss the issue of ethnicity and fundamental need for a genuine national reconciliation in our country. One very essential question Burma needs to answer is quite simple: what kind of system is needed to be in place in order to accommodate ethnic diversity and maintain unity and freedom at the same time?

An impartial understanding of Burma's ethnic politics is essential for those of us who are striving for the country's successful transition to a peaceful and democratic society. As such we all would agree that a great extent of political sensitivity is required in order to make impartial analysis and understand the political problems of Burma. Being merely sympathetic to the suffering of ethnic people under the current military regime is by no means enough. While the ethnic resistance movements may be viewed by some as an unrestrained monster that has often devastated many promising plans for change, built on sophisticated economic models, the ethnic people themselves consider their movements paramount important for their very own survival. We will be so wrong to assume that the reality of ethnic and their cultural diversities would in due course be assimilated or eliminated in the process of developmental change. As Ralph R. Premdas points out: "The evidence against this de-emphasis of the ethno-cultural factor by the different ideologies is devastating. From Lebanon in the Middle East to Guyana on the South American continent, from Northern Ireland to Azerbaijan in Europe to Quebec in North America, from the Sudan and South Africa to Sri Lanka and Malaysia, the assertion of the ethnic factor has made shambles of development objectives and social peace everywhere, on all continents, in both underdeveloped and industrialized societies."

Therefore, any strategy for development, both in politics and economic, regardless of ideological foundation it is based on, must acknowledge and incorporate the reality of cultural pluralism and ethnic diversity in the country. In light of this reality, federalism has become a very important state organization system that can make the best possible accommodation and incorporation of ethnic diversity into the country's political development. In the meantime, experience shows that the only federations which have failed are those which had socialist or communist state systems. Thus, what Burma need is to have democratic principles as the basis foundation of political system, and federalism as the basic foundation of state organization.

To briefly look at the origin of the word federalism, it is found that the word came into English via French from Latin. Foederatus means "bound by treaty" deriving from foedus: treaty and fidere: to trust."1 The earliest recorded use of the word is said to be found in 17th century puritans, a religious community who spoke of "federal theology" meaning a covenant between God and human beings. But by early 18th century, the word had evolved to include agreements between separate political communities of a heterogeneous people.

Throughout history, we can see that different countries in the world have employed federalism at various levels in terms of agreement between states, and power relationship between states and central government. And each form of federalism has a different history and socio-political diversity. India, for example, has employed a sort of centralized federalism in which the federal government has significant constitutional power, has been employed with a certain success, and it has also maintained considerable level of democratic principles, freedom and stability. The United States and Switzerland, although they are different in many specific mechanisms, have a similar scheme of very decentralized federalism. History has proved that different types of federal systems have efficiently accommodated a number of multi-ethnic societies with different social and political backgrounds, except for the currently defunct Yugoslav and Russian forms of federalism which had been operated within a political system of total rule by one party. So let us briefly look into the sustainability of federalism for our country, Burma.

First, federalism can facilitate the demand of "self-determination"2 made by ethnic nationalities. In other words, federalism can reconcile the legitimate impulse of Burma to preserve her territorial integrity and national unity, with the legitimate rights of ethnic nationalities to preserve their culture, human dignity and political autonomy. In this sense, federalism not only allows the existence of cultural pluralism, but also gives the minorities to preserve and develop themselves politically as well as economically. Moreover, federalism, depending on the level of decentralization, can protect the affairs and decisions of ethnic nationalities, in their organization and forms of representation, or in the strategies they adopt to prevent resources from being exploited unilaterally by the central government. In short, federalism encourages peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnic nationalities with equality and freedom.

We have seen in the history of Burma that ambitious attempts made by successive Burman-dominated governments and military regimes to unite the country by forcibly assimilating smaller ethnic nationalities into the melting pot of Burman [or Burmese] have painfully resulted in the half-a-century long civil war. Meanwhile, ethnic nationalities have both repeatedly and collectively proposed to form a genuine federal union in which both Burman and non-Burman ethnic nationalities can peacefully co-exist as equal partners.3 Of course, federalism must be developed in response to the ancient question of how to unite different ethnic nationalities together in order to effectively pursue objectives unobtainable otherwise, but without submerging any of their own identities. Within the framework of federalism, the new relationship between ethnic nationalities and the central government will be created on the basis of recognition of their rights to self-determination and of the legal, political, social, economic, and cultural rights derived therefrom.

Secondly, while the supremacy of the national government over the federal units is recognized, in federalism the degree of shared responsibility for, and power over, public policy is clearly distinguished. Thus, federalism can incorporate the condition of multi-ethnicity in any explication of the development idea for the country as a whole. It is important to note here that for a multi-ethnic country like Burma, most federal units may be ethnically defined units. Looking at the examples of other multi-ethnic states, we can clearly see that "policies which win legitimacy and stand a chance of implementation must engage and incorporate divergent communal claims."4

By maintaining clearly distinguished power over public policy, it will be possible for each federal unit of ethnic nationalities to undertake educational and development policies within their own cultural spheres. Through education it will be possible to ensure the use and development of ethnic national languages, while recognizing their cultural heritage. For example, having control over educational policies within their own states, each federal unit (or ethnic nationality state) can develop school curriculums in their own language reflecting their cultural essence and teach it at the state schools. It is important, however, that this emphasis on ethnic national language and culture in each federal unit or state should not overshadow or supercede the teaching of the main national language, that is, Burmese; nor the study of, and fluency in, one or more internationally used languages, e.g., English, French, Chinese, etc., should be neglected.

It is indeed imperative now that Burma, a country that has been ripped by ethnic conflicts for more than fifty years, adopts federalism as a pragmatic instrument to attain genuine unity among the Burman majority and diverse ethnic nationalities. That is by no mean to say that the relationship between the central government and ethnic nationality states (federal units) will be smooth. The dual nature of federal government will always create debates over policies that it pursues; however, such debates are necessary as to check and balance the power exercised by the central government, and are crucial in preventing armed conflicts between states and central government.

In conclusion, it must be stressed that there can be no peace nor stability in a multi-ethnic country unless ethnic problems are unequivocally addressed. The issues of democracy and human rights can be addressed at the level of protection of the rights of the individual citizen, but they must also be safeguarded by recognizing the rights of ethnic nationalities. To this end, federalism, with its dualistic character of sophisticated balance between central and state authorities, seems to be the most suitable framework yet developed for structuring mutually respected relations in the ethnically diverse society of Burma.

This is a slightly revised version of discussion paper presented by Naw May Oo at the 51st Annual Meeting of Association for Asian Studies, March 11-14, 1999, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


1 Stephen Woodard, "The Simple Guide to the Federal Idea." From Ventotene, Federalism and Politics, The Ventotene Papers of the Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies, Ventotene, 1995.

2 The term, "self-determination," is oftentimes defined differently by different scholars. Here we chose to use the "softer" notion of self-determination as presented by Asbjorn Eide. The term, "self-determination," should not be seen here as an absolute term but more as "intermediate option" which allows ethnic nationalities to have greater control over their own political, social and economic destiny.

3 Both the National Democratic Front (NDF), an umbrella organization of ethnic resistance groups, and the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), a larger alliance organization of both Burman and non-Burman democratic opposition forces, have clearly stated their position on the "establishment of a genuine federal union of Burma based on democracy, equality and self-determination."

4 Ralph R. Premdas, "Ethnicity and Development: The Case of Fiji," United Nations Research Institute for Social Development discussion paper No. 46, October 1993.


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