International Conference on “Federalism, Ethno-linguistic Identities and Minority Rights: Perspectives from India and Myanmar”
Nation-states who are ethnically-based or where a large number of ethno-linguistic groups are based territorially or otherwise, derive their authority from ethnicity and cultural identities. It is natural for these groups to demand respect and recognition because they are bound up with the life and history of their own. In many cases, ethnicity, language and religion are integrally connected which give them a major source of legitimacy. Both India and Myanmar are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. In pre-modern societies, such groups were largely confined to the social and geographical spaces where they were located or were assigned the space by the dominant groups. Thanks to the spread of democracy and movement of people for better opportunities of life, today, these groups demand equal status, rights, power and opportunity to participate in and shape the collective life of the wider society.
Ethnicity may not always be a sufficient basis on which to organize a nation-state, but ethnicity and ethnic aspirations of people are a necessary condition for a successful federation. Ethnicity, language, religion and culture provide the indispensible glue that keeps citizens together. In Western histories, a multiplicity of ethnicities and languages were seen as dangerous a portent of disunity and incoherence. Reality in other parts of the world has been different. In India and Myanmar, for instance, homogeneity has not been the basis of nationhood.
The ethnic nationalities in Myanmar have been consistently demanding the rebuilding of the Union of Myanmar based on the spirit of Panglong and the principles of democracy, political equality and internal self-determination. They have further argued that the constitution of the Union should be framed in accordance with the principles of federalism and democratic decentralization, which would guarantee the democratic rights of citizens of Myanmar.
The 1947 Panglong Agreement signed by Gen Aung San and leaders of Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups had the objective of recognizing the rights of these groups to administer their own affairs in areas of economy, judiciary, administration, customs etc. Gen Aung San made several commitments to ethnic minorities including “internal autonomy”. These commitments continue to resonate in minority groups’ political demands ever since. The “spirit of Panglong” is a common phrase used by the ethnic groups as well as academics and political commentators.
In fact the concept of federal governance in Myanmar has been on the agenda since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. The initial democratic experience following independence was largely federalist in structure but it proved incapable of preventing ethnic conflict. General Aung San’s assassination resulted in the premature death of the idea of federal governance. Federalism was dumped by Gen Ne Win dismissing it as a recipe for secession. The successive military governments projected ‘federalism’ as anti-national, anti-unity and pro-disintegration.
Until as recent as 2011 in a highly significant act, the Thein Sein government signed what has been named a “Deed of Commitment for Peace and Reconciliation”, promising a form of federalism for the country. And this has been one of the core principles of the ongoing peace process with the country’s ethnic armed groups. As a pro-democratic party, the NLD has been supportive of a federal government. But under the present system, such a change would require military approval whose representatives’ hold 25% of seats in the national parliament, and 75% approval is required for constitutional amendments.
Constitutional problems, however, are far more complex. How much authority should local legislatures have? How should local militias be treated, or indeed, should they exist? How will local police be empowered given that the police are under the Ministry of Home Affairs, where the minister must be an active duty military officer? How will revenues from extractive industries be treated or shared? What types of taxes may local authorities impose and collect, and at what levels?
Global experience suggests that any centralized state can’t represent and much less fulfill the aspirations of minorities and ethno-linguistic groups who have suffered from decades of suppression of their cultural rights.
Success of democracy in Myanmar depends on federalism. Myanmar has witnessed one of the longest civil wars rooted in ethnic conflict. The fighting is far from over and some groups are yet to sign the ceasefire agreement. Consolidation of democracy and the stability of polity depend primarily on how the ethnic issue is addressed. Federalism in Myanmar would mean a paradigm change in how the country is governed.
Federalism offers hope. It guarantees autonomy that ethnic groups and other minorities demand. However, democracy alone will not accommodate these demands. As Alfred Stepan says, the only way for multinational countries like Myanmar is to become a democratic state through a “workable federal system”.
India’s federal experience can be useful for Myanmar. Though India adopted a democratic system after independence and the Indian Constitution had key federal features, it described India as a “Union of States”, not a federation. However, with the rise of regional parties, India’s federal polity asserted itself and as per the Supreme Court’s ruling, federalism is the “basic structure” of the Indian Constitution which can’t be amended. The first phase of reorganization of Indian states was based on accommodation of ethno-linguistic and cultural communities. The second effort at federal reorganization focused on India’s North-Eastern region.
The 2-day conference in Aizawl will revolve around some key issues. Discussion of Myanmar’s democratic advance and the peace process will form part of one block of issues that require critical examination. Other themes would include regional perspectives on federalism in India, Myanmar and Nepal, environmental federalism in India and Myanmar, resource management and revenue sharing and ethnic identities and federal discourse.
Venue: Mizoram University, Aizawl, India
Program Co-ordinator, Democracy & Dialogue Programme