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A Detour on the Road to Federal Democracy in Myanmar

24 Nov 2021
By Dr Michael Breen
Protest against military coup (9 Feb 2021, Hpa-An, Kayin State, Myanmar) Source: Ninjastrikers

More than ten months from the military coup that upended Myanmar’s democratisation, there remains no clear path out. But the destination – a genuine federal democracy – remains unchanged.

At the time, Myanmar was riven by a deep division between three main forces: the military (Tatmadaw), ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), and the governing party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Despite their very significant differences, both the military and the NLD are dominated by elites from the Bamar (Burmese) ethnic group. They have tended to share a view that Myanmar is a nation-state for the Bamar, and have privileged the Burmese language, religion, and culture. The EAOs have challenged that notion and demanded autonomy or the independence to recognise their ethnic groups’ distinct cultures and homelands. The military has historically responded with violence directed at the minority ethnic groups (ethnic nationalities). But now, the military is targeting the Bamar alike.

At a recent event I attended, one politically minded Bamar youth representative spoke passionately and eloquently about their collective realisation of the torment that many ethnic nationalities had faced at the hands of the military, and their pledge to stand with the minority groups – to never turn a blind eye to their suffering again. This is one thing that gives us hope.

After the 1988 coup, some similar sentiments were expressed, and the ethnic nationalities and Bamar democrats worked together. But this alliance faded, and by the 2020 election, ethnic nationalities had lost faith in the NLD and its iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Will this time be any different?

A Federal Democracy?

The fault lines between the NLD and the representatives of ethnic nationalities (political parties and armed groups) centre around the issue of federalism. Autonomy for ethnic nationalities in the form of federalism or independence has been the basis of civil war between the Bamar majority state and the EAOs for more than 70 years. The NLD promised federalism in the lead-up to the 2015 election, which it won comprehensively, but failed to deliver.

A fear of federalism, and all that it may entail, has been one of the reasons that the military has been so resistant to reform. It associates federalism with secession and the disintegration of the country, and it sees itself as the guardian of the Union of Myanmar, national solidarity, and sovereignty. The military had committed to establish federalism but had not taken any concrete action to this end, nor had it developed any plan to withdraw from its active role in the governance of the state.

Following the coup, a National Unity Government (NUG) was established as a kind of government-in-exile. The NUG is working on federalism. It has drafted a Federal Democracy Charter, incorporating a Declaration of a Federalism Democratic Union. Under this charter, ethnically based federal states would be strongly empowered. However, the details, including whether there would be new federal states and regions, remain subject to negotiation.

The NUG has also sought to establish a kind of federal army and has facilitated the arming and training of a People’s Defence Force (PDF), with the support of some – but not all – EAOs. On 7 September 2021, the NUG declared war against the military regime, calling on PDFs and EAOs to unite to protect the people. This battle is ongoing, with casualties on both sides.

A New Election?

The military has pledged to hold another election. Few believe it, and fewer still believe it would be fair. It is almost certain that any new election held under military tutelage would not involve the NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi, who was arrested following the coup and is currently on trial on what most observers would agree are trumped up charges.

Even if the military is able hold a new election, the outcome would be regarded as illegitimate, and there would be large tracts of the country where voting would not take place, including areas that are outside of the military’s control or that are considered too unstable.

The military’s State Administration Council is currently preparing amendments to the country’s electoral system. The existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and the outcomes it facilitated was one contributing factor to the coup. A FPTP system is essentially a winner-takes-all approach to elections. It exaggerates the winning margin and tends to lead to single-party governments. In deeply divided societies like Myanmar, proportional representation systems are often recommended instead.

But in this case, many democrats are sceptical and concerned. This is because the main effect of a proportional representation system will be to increase the representation of the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Ethnic political parties, that might be thought to benefit from such electoral reform, would fare much the same.

Whatever the military does, it needs to act soon. The country is falling into chaos. Its economy is in tatters, the civil disobedience movements continue, and many areas of the country are outside of the state’s control. Right now, Myanmar would fit all the hallmarks of a failed state. We cannot expect any intervention from ASEAN, which follows a policy of non-interference and operates by consensus. Nor can we expect it from the UN, given China’s interests in the region and its veto right at the UN Security Council. While international pressure should be applied, change must come from within.

What Next?

The military has given itself until August 2023 to hold the next election, under an extended state of emergency. But an internal coup is not out of the question. There have been many reported defections from the military, and its leader, Min Aung Hlaing, should be not feel assured of his colleagues’ continued support, especially if the country continues to descend into chaos.

The Australian government has agreed to put in place its own version of the Magnitsky Act. However, more than ten months on from the coup, and four years after the campaign of terror perpetuated by the military against the Rohingya People, Australia has still not sanctioned Myanmar’s top military leaders. It is no secret that the economic interests of the military generals were a factor behind the coup, and it is unconscionable that the Australian government continues to hedge its bets.

It seems inconceivable that either side will achieve a military victory. The military have not been able to end the civil war or control Myanmar’s borders for more than seventy years. There is no reason to believe that this will change. In contrast, the PDF forces are small, barely trained, and disconnected. Despite its avowed goal of preventing the disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, the military’s actions have made it a real and present risk.

Yet the situation in Myanmar is not that dissimilar to other conflicts in ethnically divided societies. Such conflicts often manifest when one ethnic group is dominant and controls the state, and minority ethnic groups are in conflict with that state. An alliance between factions from the majority Bamar and the ethnic minorities is one necessary condition for the federalisation of deeply divided countries, like Myanmar. And, in such cases, federalism and democracy must occur at the same time, as opposed to sequentially. The conditions for major change – the establishment of a genuine federal democracy – are in place.

Myanmar will have a democratic future, and that democratic future will be federal. The will of the people is strong, and there is no other viable alternative. It is now a question of when.

Dr Michael G Breen is a Lecturer (MECAF) in Public Policy at the University of Melbourne. Michael has worked and researched in the Asia region since 2007, advising government and other political actors on federalism and constitutional design, in particular, in Myanmar and Nepal.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.