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.


A Note on Education Reform for Burma

A Note on Education Reform for Burma: Necessities and Challenges

This brief paper was presented at the Open School Campaign Conference held in Chiangmai, Thailand, in 2000.


Current education system in Burma has two main problems. The first one is over centralization, which is related to, and also the consequence of, the political system. The second one is the lack of sufficient resources, both human and financial, and this is apparently a consequence of political problem facing the country today.

This brief presentation will discuss the necessity for Burma’s education reform focusing on the former issue and enumerate some recommendations from a non-Burman ethnic nationality perspective. This is by no means to say that the opinion expressed, or recommendation made herein, represents the desire of all the ethnic minorities of Burma.

A Need for Decentralization

Education reforms are being introduced in a number of countries around the world. Most reforms are implemented as part of a transformation process from a centralized to decentralized one. The underlying concept is that by bringing decision-making power and accountability closer to school administrators, teachers and parents, schools will become more efficient in allocating and using resources as well as more effective in instructing students and keeping them in school. Particularly for countries with heterogeneous population, we find such expectation to be plausible.

Specifically for Burma, we believe that education is the key not only to produce educated labor force but also to foster ethnic harmony. To improve understanding among diverse ethnic communities and incorporate all available human resources into the transformation process, education reform must ensure the participation of community, particularly in decision making in both resource and academic realms.
[1] Such policy approach will not only contribute to modernization, but simultaneously, engender the opportunity to address the goals of long-term economic development, poverty alleviation, and most importantly, social harmony in diversity. In line with a decentralized political structure, the table attached more or less suggests the scope of administrative authority that can be delineated for different levels of political structure. In a federated Burma, most educational responsibility must fall under the administration of state governments. The central government will be responsible for structuring the overall education system in order to maintain comparable standard between states.

The current education system in Burma is highly centralized. The Education Ministry, consequently, is insensitive or unresponsive to the local needs. Social science curriculums are not reflective of regional cultures and social realities. It is extremely difficult to accept the mandate where students from a Karen village in Pa-pun area or a Kachin village in Sumparabum region have to limit their studies to Burmese historical figures such as Mahabandula, Anawyahta and Alaungpayar, but nothing at all is mentioned about their own history. Such curriculum bias makes most ethnic groups feel threatened to their cultures and identities. On the other hand, by not knowing the histories and cultures of ethnic minorities, some ethnic Burmans tend to lose respect for those minority peoples. Even worse is the fact that ethnic nationalities are deprived of learning their own language at schools.

Language Issue: A Challenge

Given the heterogeneous nature of Burma’s population, the language issue can be the most challenging one and thus deserves a great length of discussion. Yet, our discussion here is somewhat general and may be insufficiently brief as it is concerned mainly with the survival of ethnic languages.

As does in many other countries, the political structure in Burma has distinctive effects on education policy and some education policy instruments, in turn, appear to have a significant effect on social harmony. In this sense, it is important that the design of education policy, especially on language and social science subjects, complies with political structure and social realities. It is important to note that, by employing only Burmese as a means of disseminating knowledge, other ethnic minorities are practically put into disadvantaged position as many of them never learn to speak or write in Burmese.

It is assumed in this essay that all the ethnic nationalities and Burman democratic forces alike are struggling to build a multi-ethnic federation of Burma, and further elaboration on the issue is made in that context. A constitutional recognition of language diversity to promote equal opportunity for all ethnic peoples is essential. People from Shan State or Kachin State, for example, may consider themselves citizens of Burma, but only in their own state that they feel at home and are willing to reside and settle. It is natural and perfectly legitimate that these ethnic peoples struggle to maintain their cultures and identities through the preservation of their own language. Language preservation is a crucial means to maintain their culture, identity and dignity. It is important that in the new education system, people in each ethnic state have the right to be educated in, and to use in official dealings, their own language. This means that they must be able to study subjects such as history, geography and sociology in their own language, in addition to the ‘federal’ official language, which can be Burmese.

On the other hand, it is foreseeable that the cost of maintaining language diversity in the education system can be high, and without a common official language, the language barrier between states or different ethnic nationalities, for instance, can raise transaction costs in inter-regional economic activities. Policymakers should seriously consider this possible high transaction costs in the making of language policy in each ethnic state. Thus, for economic benefits, it may be practical that Burmese language (a language spoken by the majority Burman) remains as a national official language. However, English can be an alternative to this issue, and it is desirable that this international language be taught from Kindergarten, as currently is maintained in Burma. Singapore, India and the Philippines may be studied as examples. Further discussions and debates at the national level will be imperative for any concrete conclusion.

Education and Ethnic "Social Capital"

The better people are educated, the easier will the process be of "social capital" building. In economic terms, “social capital is a legitimate factor of production, either substituting for another factor of production or complementing the productivity of other assets, such as labor.”
[2] While human capital emphasizes human skills and knowledge, social capital basically stresses relationships and trust among people, in a broader sense, among diverse ethnic communities as well. Hence, ethnic social capital mentioned hereinafter should be understood as an extended application of social capital.

It is important not to confuse ethnic social capital with ethnic assimilation. Ethnic social capital can be improved while each ethnic group maintains its own culture and identity whereas in ethnic assimilation, one ethnic group absorbs other ethnic groups into its cultural melting pot, and in the process culture and identities of other groups disappear.

Either interethnic tension or conflict between ethnic groups and the government can be mitigated as we improve ethnic social capital. The first step to be taken is to make education less politicized, but encourage more creativity to reflect the variety of social and cultural realities. Partial privatization and decentralization of education will help ease ethnic tension, because different ethnic regions will be able to maintain their own identity by learning their own language and adopting curriculums that reflects their cultural essence at schools in their respective states. Therefore, productivity-enhancing effect of education combined with its benefits towards ethnic harmony will help create a stable environment in which economic activities can efficiently take place.


After all, the success of any educational reform depends primarily on the balance between education in the ethnic languages and, at the same time, the learning of one major language, may it be Burmese or English, as the language of, and for, national cohesion. It is extremely important for policy makers to take into account the language diversity in their policy formulation. The development of a reform model, which gives a high degree of respect for diverse historical backgrounds and cultures within the country, including that of language minorities, is essential. This is consistent with UNESCO's position to promote “the right to learn in one’s mother tongue, as well as the right to access to languages of wider communication.”
[3] In a multi-ethnic country like Burma, democracy or social justice, let alone peace, will not be attainable without such respect and understanding.

[1] Nicaragua school autonomy reform was introduced in 1993 based on this same concept.
[2] See for detail “Social Capital, Trust and the Agribusiness of Economics,” 1999 WAEA Presidential Address by Paul Wilson. Available from:
[3] UNESCO (1995), MULTICULTURALISM: A POLICY RESPONSE TO DIVERSITY. Paper prepared on the occasion of the "1995 Global Cultural Diversity Conference", 26-28 April 1995, and the "MOST Pacific Sub-Regional Consultation", 28-29 April 1995, both in Sydney, Australia. Read more...

On Intellectual Responsibility

Intellectual Responsibility in Burma

By Saw Kapi and Naw May Oo

Irrawaddy, August 20, 2004 — Because of their critical reasoning skills, intellectuals are obligated to raise questions of social and political importance. Jean Paul Sartre, a well-known intellectual, went as far as charging intellectuals with the responsibility to “denounce injustice wherever it occurs.” Using Sartre as a model of “the critical intellectual,” Douglas Kellner, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles argues, “The domain of the critical intellectual is to write and speak within the public sphere, denouncing oppression and fighting for justice, human rights, and other values.”

Given the cruelly repressive nature of the current Burmese government, academics in Burma understandably find it difficult to fulfill the role of the critical intellectual as described by Sartre and Kellner. However, in a country this oppressed, critical thinking by intellectuals, both inside and outside Burma, is crucial to finding a solution to the nation’s troubles.

In truth, the idea of the critical intellectual is not new to Burmese society. During British colonial rule, Thakin Kodaw Hmaing drew from his understanding of Burmese culture and history to speak out against the colonizing power. He was also very critical of the Burmese society of the time.

Other critics of colonial rule include U May Oung and U Oattama. In addition, a number of early, prominent Karen intellectuals, such as T Thanbyar and San C Po, openly criticized the repression suffered by the Karen people under successive Burmese regimes.

During the time of the Burma Socialist Program Party, well-known writers and journalists such as Dagon Taryar, Daw Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar, and Shwe Ou Down were vocal critics of the government and its policies. To some extent, these intellectuals shared a similar ideological position with the government, but this did not prevent them from speaking courageously against injustice and oppression.

The people of Burma face the most severe restrictions on intellectual freedom to date. Many writers, university professors, journalists, and publishers have been arrested and sentenced to long-term imprisonment simply because of their open criticism of the military regime.

For example, U Ohn Kyaing, a former editor of Bohtataung Daily who later became a member of the NLD’s Central Committee and a Member of Parliament for Mandalay South East, was arrested on September 6, 1990. A month later, he was sentenced to seven years’ hard labor because he participated in demonstrations held in Mandalay in August 1990. Aung Khin Sint, a medical doctor who frequently wrote on health issues, was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment on charges of distributing “threatening literature”. The charges stem from letters he allegedly wrote to other members of the NLD that spoke against collaboration with the military government in drafting a new constitution. Other writers and artists such as Nyi Pu Lay and Myo Myint Nyein were given long jail sentences for criticizing the military regime.

Because of the brutal persecution critical intellectuals face in Burma, the responsibility of calling for truth and justice falls on those in the free world, who can intervene in public affairs without danger. That being the case, there is an amazing lack of critical analysis and rigorous scholarly research on Burma, both in the international news and scholarly world. For instance, two startling reports, detailing sexual violence committed against ethnic women by Burmese soldiers in 2002, received scant attention from academia in general, and legal experts in particular.

The almost total lack of critical intellectual voice outside Burma, especially in the neighboring countries, over such atrocious human rights violations is appalling. Already marginalized groups, such as the one million internally displaced persons persecuted and forced to flee their homes by the military regime, are left defenseless. In addition, continued international silence implicitly encourages the perpetrators of the human rights abuses to continue their reprehensible conduct.

This silence on the part of learned individuals is indeed one of the most disgraceful intellectual failures of our times. When those who have the ability as well as the opportunity to speak out against injustice refuse to do so, under the pretext of “being objective and unbiased,” little hope remains for people in Burma to unyoke themselves from one of world’s most notorious dictatorships.

That said, a sound intellectual exercise should not merely end with speaking the truth. It should also provide much needed critical analyses, guided by reason and practicality, to find solutions for the common good of society. Burma’s democratic movement has been lacking such intellectual support.

While Burmese political activists and politicians alike are not afraid to speak out against injustices committed by the regime, there has not been much analytical thought given to the development of a better and viable alternative to the current regime. It is not simply enough for Burmese intellectuals, both inside and abroad, to only criticize what the regime in power does. Intellectuals must look beyond the interests of the two opposing political camps and investigate the realities on the ground.

While institutional loyalty and hero-worshipping undermine the objective, critical nature of intellectualism, they are also detrimental to the common good of society. The proper role of intellectuals in Burma’s struggle for freedom and democracy is to rise above their own institutional interests. They must question not only the conduct of the military regime, but also that of the democracy movement. Beyond that, they must strive for viable and just solutions for the country.

Saw Kapi is a Policy Fellow at the Institute for Education and Development Studies (IEDS) and Naw May Oo is Director of Communications at the Free Burma Coalition (FBC). Read more...

In Search of a Model for Burma's Future

Some thoughts about Pin-lone Agreement and the Issue of Secession
in Burma's Politics

By -- Saw Kapi

It is almost natural that we look for a model to work with as we attempt to find a solution to our country's problem. In doing so, we have a tendency to draw our inspiration from the past. At least that is what most of us in Burma are accustomed to do. Perhaps the reason we tend to look back to the history is that many of us do not have access to enough information to develop enough intellectual curiosity and therefrom capacity to explore new ways and means. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with looking into our own history in search of a plausible political model for the country. The danger, though, in doing so is that at times we fail to look outward, or forward, to the world around us in search of new models or new ways.

Speaking of Pin-lone Agreement, one should note that the Karen representatives were not there when the agreement was signed in February of 1947. Only a few Karen observers attended the conference and they were not part of the signatories. In fact, the Karens were not very keen with the idea of federalism in the beginning because our demographic composition is drastically different from other ethnic people, say, Kachin or Chin, who occupy some geographic area in northern or western part of Burma mostly on their own, perhaps until recently. The Karens at the moment seem to go along with "Pin-Lone Spirit," in a sense, to shore up support for a move towards some kind of federalism. Personally, I do not even think that those who are promoting “Pin-lone Spirit” among the opposition groups really believe in it. May be some of our Chin brothers do, but most Kachin and Karen do not.

Having said the above, this author is completely mindful of the impracticality of secession especially for the Karens, because we are demographically so intermingled and mixed with other ethnic people including the Burman. If the issue of succession is openly put forth and talked about among different ethnic people, we could end up in a fight with the Mons and the Tavoyan.

Here is the bottom line: no individual or organization in Burma's politics hitherto has offered any plausible solution to these dilemmas that Karens and other ethnic people have about maintaining their identity and cultural heritages, on the one hand and being an integral part of the Union, or whatever we call it, on the other. We need to think about formulating a strategy to come up with a new political line that leaves “secession” behind and look at Pin-lone Agreement as one of the most significant point in Burma’s history, but not as the sole model. The key here is to strike a strategic balance between the two concerns that Burma has, namely, the issue of national integration or disintegration and the issues of ethnic equality among the many groups of people, who call Burma home.

Either consciously or subconsciously, many of us are still in the old mode of thinking – we often look up to the western models and fail to appreciate the Asian approach, and think that western models are superior to that of the Asian. This unfortunately has led us to not properly recognize the strategic role of Burma’s immediate neighbors, especially Thailand, India and China. Consequently, we have made less-than-necessary efforts to develop good relationship with them and instead become increasingly dependent on the west.

We need to put all available options on the table with an open mind. If the Indonesian model, for instance, is more suitable for our country, we should not have any problem approaching our issues similar to what they have done. At least within the last two decades, Indonesians have made a lot of progress, economically and politically. If we are given 20 years and allowed to choose between the situations we are in now and the (arguably slow) progress that the Indonesians have made, I would not have any problem choosing the latter, which is more of evolution than revolution. If 17 years of revolutionary approach produces nothing, we should not rule out an evolutionary approach for the next fifteen years and expect at least a gradual progress towards a level of democratic change in that time frame.