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Will Burma amend constitution for genuine Federalism?

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The people of Burma have been longing for a peaceful and prosperous country since the 1948 independence victory. But regrettably, the nation's independence hero General Aung San was assassinated a year ahead of liberation. As a result, civil wars throughout the nation came forward with the independence offered by British colonial rule. 

In fact, General Aung San and the leaders of Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups had guaranteed a genuine federal union of Burma by signing the Panglong Agreement on Feb. 12, 1947. The said agreement accepted the representatives of ethnic states to administer their own affairs in areas of economy, judiciary, education, and customs and so on.

However, Burma's 66-year-old historic Panglong Agreement has been ignored by the consecutive regimes. The said agreement has been disregarded by the military leaders as they did not support "Federalism' since 1962. The military extremists blame the federalism as an idea of secessionists.

The late dictator, Ne Win, who seized power in a military coup in 1962, strongly opposed sharing equal power with other respective ethnic nationals. Ne Win supported a unitary state rather than a genuine federal union. The Military Council headed by Ne Win declared that the military coup had taken place because of the ethnic secessionist idea or federalism, which he translated, could lead to the disintegration of the nation.

Equality of ethnic minorities with the Burman majority was to him unacceptable. When Ne Win seized power, he did away with the 1948 Constitution. At the same time, the Panglong Agreement, which promised autonomy or self-determination of the ethnic groups, was broken and abrogated.
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The head of the previous junta, Sen-Gen Than Shwe had followed the example of his precursor Gen. Ne Win who fortified the single unitary state. In addition, Gen. Than Shwe was no different either. Under Sen-Gen Than Shwe's command, the controversial 2008 Constitution was drawn up but criticized as an undemocratic and anti-federalism charter in public.

Afterward, the current President Thein Sein government took office by swearing to defend the 2008 Constitution. It indicates the current regime also is no different to its predecessors. It seems opposing autonomy or self-determination of the ethnic groups while it has to defend the latest constitution. The question is the central government has no intention of power-sharing with the respective state and divisional administrations. In fact, federalism is no other than an idea of decentralization of the central government's supremacy. 

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"All the armed forces in the union shall be under the command of the Defense Services," says section 337 of the 2008 constitution. It means ethnic armed troops have to obey the central government's military command.

The current government standpoint is that the ethnic groups must dump their stubborn attitude of grasping the principle of Panglong Agreement. They also want the ethnic groups to be faithful to the military-backed government's unitary state policy rather than the federal union system. Actually, it means they must lay down their arms together with their hope for autonomy.

The government has stayed away from declaring a nationwide ceasefire to establish a true peaceful nation. If it was sincere, it would stop all self-styled area-cleaning offensives in ethnic territories in favor of grand dialogue to show it has a serious will to reconcile.

Several ethnic leaders think that if not for the historic Panglong Agreement there would not have been the Union of Burma/Myanmar. The said Panglong Agreement between the non-Burman leaders and General Aung San was the foundation of Union of Burma or Myanmar.

If the Panglong Agreement was not signed, the country would have been divided into two parts: Burma and the Frontier Areas, the late Shan leader U Shwe Ohn, a participant at the Panglong Conference, wrote in his "Toward the Third Union of Burma" (1993). He also believed that Burma would become independent in 1948, while the Frontier Areas would continue to remain under British rule. Federated Shan States was a part, and that would also have been an independent country by now, U Shwe Ohn wrote.

If General Aung San did not promise equal opportunity and self-determination, the country might never have been founded under the title of the Union of Burma. The Panglong agreement was aimed at setting up a federal union on the foundation of equality and autonomy for every ethnic nationality.

According to some critics, the NLD headed by Aung San Suu Kyi supports the Panglong Agreement and self-determination for every ethnic nationality while the military-based President Thein Sein government strongly opposed it.

Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on 13 September in Budapest that her country "cannot be a democratic nation as long as the (present) constitution is in effect", according to AFP News -- Sat, Sep 14, 2013.

Speaking in Hungary during a tour of central Europe, Suu Kyi said a report ordered by the legislature and due by the end of the year on possible changes to the constitution would "show how genuine the present government is about democratization".

"If the government does not support moves to amend the constitution then we can conclude that the government is not interested in genuine democracy," Aung San Suu Kyi, who has said she will run for president at elections in 2015, told reporters.

In the same way, various ethnic leaders emphasized that they don't have confidence in the new 2008 constitution which abandoned the Paglong principles.

Under the military-centered constitution, most ethnic leaders believe, the nation will not have a chance to create a genuine democratic federal union by any means.

Hence, the ongoing peacemaking process seems to be misled towards a sham democratic state. Some analysts believe that the military-backed President Thein Sein government has also been following the path of its predecessors. The real plan of seeking temporary ceasefire by the regime looks as if to persuade more recognition of international community, rather than indisputable peace.

Hence, even though some ceasefire deals are made between the rebel groups and the government there has been little legally binding progress. Many ethnic leaders asserted that they don't have trust the new 2008 constitution as there is no guarantee for a justifiable federal union in the future.

Additionally, most ethnic leaders frequently said the current constitution will not grant the democratic freedom and the autonomy for the ethnic people since the government armed forces take 25 percent of all seats in the existing parliament.

So, without pondering the constitutional amendment promptly, it may be too early to say that Myanmar is going on a proper democratization path.


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Zin Linn was born on February 9, 1946 in a small town in Mandalay Division. He began writing poems in 1960 and received a B.A (Philosophy) in 1976. He became an activist in the High School Union after the students' massacre on 7th July 1962. (more...)

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