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A bottom-up approach to democracy: The question of federalism in Burma

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By Banya Hongsar, Canberra – Restoring Burma’s democratic political system is the new destiny of Burma’s citizens. Different approaches, strategies, and principles will have to be used based on the concepts of those involved on the ground. The aspiration for unity can be fostered in grassroots practice when a commitment is made to uphold the principle of human rights and equality. The concept of federalism must come before democracy in Burma, as we have seen in recent political events.

The desire of all ethnic people to establish federalism in Burma is a popular topic of debate after the election in November 2010. A military-affiliated government has transformed itself as an alternative government under the new constitution. Pro-democracy activists and political resistance forces have been struggling to foster a new united campaign, while the nation has been divided on various fronts.

The question of federalism in Burma is not a relevant topic to most of Burma’s observers and experts from Western nations. However, most ethnic armed force leaders believe that it is only way to move away from the current political stalemate. According to the UN Information Center in Rangoon, “Recognizing the significance of the government’s commitments, we must stress that implementation is key. I underscored the opportunity and responsibility that the government now has to translate its commitments into effective action. Domestically and internationally, expectations are high that it will start taking concrete steps soon”.

In addition, a press statement by Mr. Vijay Nambiar, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General, in May stated that President U Thein Sein will be playing a win-win game with the UN and U.S. engagement for a wider acknowledgement of his new government in the international community arena.

The newly elected military-affiliated government for the Union of Myanmar will not help Burma grow into a peaceful and prosperous nation under the rule of laws. The newly formed government is not committed to better governance or to sharing power with the ethnic states based in parliament unless the local Members of Parliament align with the government. Local activists and politicians should be seeking greater political participation in local issues such as health, education, and economy, while they also have to strive for better access to state budgets and resources which are mainly controlled by military-linked businesses and sectors.

I am a citizen and activist of Burma who would like to see Burma transform into a democratic nation. I will seek a place to bring this debate with relevant facts and arguments from the past and current events of Burma.

A sensible way of building a new nation under a federalist model will never be perfect in modern politics unless peoples’ participation in decision-making process is in place. It is a new political ground that Burma — as a nation that has to prepare that political inclusiveness — is the foundation of building a flourishing democracy in this century. A nation of multi-ethnic diverse people has to support local and national policies that each voice is lawfully heard and protected. The best form of federalism engages different political interest groups and ensures that local issues to the broader national issues on health, education, employment and legal protection to all citizens of the country are heard. Burma is a land of peace in the history, but the country has been torn a part due to lack of trust and respect between multi-ethnic political leaders and the Burmese army’s generals. For the last 50 years, the nation has been ruled by military might and, as a result, the nation has declined, in dysfunction and is marginalized in the modern world stage. The Burma majority ethnic needs to address this decline and if modern political leaders decide to pursue a federalist platform, then they need to rebuild Burmese trust in their government.

The best model will include the principle of political change in the country with a sense of social justice within the community of each ethnic group and neighbouring borders. Activists, new political leaders, and those who seek political power in the meantime should foster a mentality of change in the spirit of evolution and revolution. The seven ethnic states and regions with high proportions of ethnic people are required to be incepted under a sensible constitution in due time.

It is in Burma’s interest that the nation should be seeking lasting peace and prosperity like other countries in the region. However, any conflicts over issues can not be solved unless political leaders share the burden of the nation on social, political, and economic implications.

A federalist model in Burma should also seek technical assistance from local, national, and international constitutional lawyers and experts. Burmese constitutional experts and modern political leaders have been working on it for some time both privately and publically in liberated areas. But the federalism project like National Reconciliation Program (NRP) and other programs like Transitional Justice on Burma have limited resources and practical network with grassroots inside the country. Burma’s pro-democracy campaigners nationally and internationally are wise to set up a kind of “Burma Federalism Project” locally and nationally with the support of other civil society network. It is the network that could reach to local media, civil society and other groups like workers where a community education session could also commence within the community. A similar project should be setting within the community in all state and region under the laws that citizen could explore new idea for co-existing with peace and unity in purpose. A mentality of community should be fostered within the community’s attitude and behavior.

Buddhist culture has been living within the majority of Burma’s peoples more than a thousand years. Imposing a new institution in social and political terms will require time and space to be integrated within the community. It is not only a systematic to be changed for nation’s prosperity and lasting peace, it also requires institutional changes with moral responsibility. This is the hard question for Burma: Can institutional change be achieved in such a closed political landscape?

Western observers and experts on Burma rarely look at the nature of the society on its societal and cultural functionality in social and political terms, even though they have the best intentions for the Burmese. They have been seeking a solution for Burma that falls under the banner of “democracy, human rights and national reconciliation” for some years now. A close-minded political culture has been deepening among Burma’s people prior to British rule in early 1880s. A self-observed community in religion and traditional beliefs has been living with the mentality of the generation of the 19th century while open-minded generation of the 21st century tends to seek liberalisation. Local politicians fail to capture the changing pattern of old and new generation while they mobilize the movement in the early 1990s.

After 60 years of militarization and nationalism of the Burmese, a question of federalism in the 21st century must be examined based on rulers’ attitudes. A newly formed government and parliament is dominated both the national and state assemblies by the former military personals. The ethnic leaders have been calling for political dialogue both formally and informally to the ruling military regime for over 20 years, but the ruling Burmese dominated new government will never make or give a gesture for any proposals.

The ruling military regime lacks vision for the formation of federalism apart from blaming the ethnic leaders and people with a propaganda of “disintegration of the Union” in the last 60 years. Despite ethnic leaders reaching consensus on many historical accords for a genuine with a balance of power between the national (federal government) and state governments by a new model of constitution proposed by Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) in 2004, the military government ignored the initiative for once and for all.

I will advocate and explore a sensible way for Burma to be governed under the principle of federalism in the 21st century with a sense of national pride from all citizens of the country regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity. It is time that a mature political vision and a bold movement among local people for fostering public participation in local issues from schooling to hospitals and from road construction to town planning in which each citizen has a say on local issues that matters to us.

Although the question of federalism in Burma has been under shadow under the banner of democratization in recent events after the release of pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, the aspiration of the movement has never been diminished among ethnic and majority Burmese democracy activists. The only sensible model of federalism will sustain Burma’s lasting political stability in the 21st century.

An attempt at “socialism” failed from 1962 to 1988 amidst political manipulation by the ruling military government. Over 20 years of military rule will never sustain peace and security among the community in the country and beyond. A newly crafted a shameful constitution and newly elected government lacks federalism and democratization with a principle of ‘free and fair’ society. Burma watcher and prominent journalist Bertil Lintner warned, “Recent openness in other areas should not be viewed as a sign that newer leaders are more liberal-minded. Rather, this suggests that the new generation is perpetuating the same cycle of repression, openness, and then repression again that the older generation perfected.”

In addition, the Australian National University recently convened a conference about Burma with an estimated over 70 guests from researchers, scholars, policy makers from Australian government, Burma democracy activists and speakers from the Union of Myanmar. Some speakers also shared the view of the new government is willing to “change, reform and cooperate” under the new legislative framework while the majority are silence on this assertion.

A lack of trust and respect between Burmese and non-Burmese ethnic people, especially among political leaders should be healing both spiritually and mentally. A sensible model of sharing power and balance of power between Burmese- dominated officials within the government and non-Burmese ethnic elites those who are based in urban should be fostering a mature relations and win-win positions for common good to common purpose. Lacking mature respect and trust among Burmese and non-Burmese elites will delay federalism in Burma regardless political conviction in our era.

An aspiration of formation of genuine federal governance in Burma is not only a lasting political solution, but also a lasting regional human security in terms of armed conflict and internally displaced person. Burma will be a nation of progressive in social and political order if the country is equally ruled by each ethnic government in their own state and division under the rule of laws. A political movement on a campaign for federalism will never achieved unless local young people and young women in our generation share common interest for education, health and economy development among local Burmese and non-Burmese people in the same country.

New political leaders and democracy activists have little choice but to take bold action on community setting where they could engage local issues on health, education and socio-cultural development for the best interest of each citizen of the country. Federalism is not only bargaining for sole political power, but also for the sake of sharing power, responsibility and resources among local people. Hence, therefore, the rule of laws is the foundation of the movement in our era.

I have lived in a Western country for more than 10 years under the rule of laws, democracy and practice of federalism from local and national issues. In Australia, I am informed by media, government’s agency and public notices. I have the the right to be informed and to be engaged with the issues in my local area and it has been a good experience. I have been observing and learning from the practical lessons that local government has major role to play in local education, health and social and cultural development for the local people.

It is Burma’s best interest that local government in each state and division have constitutional power under a parliamentary framework in which the government could implement independently without intervention of the federal government. Federalism like Australia has strong social and political capitals because citizens are informed in all local and national issues prior to decision making process through the government.

It is a good time that local activists and other new political and social interest forces build a consensus for where to take it from here. Burma will be ruled by military elites and its linked businesses in the foreseeable future unless a new campaign for a genuine federal state is formed in our new generation. No one will lose anything by supporting a better and fairer model of federalism in Burma. It is the foundation of Burma for the 21st century. Unity is strength and diversity is wealth for Burma. U Ko Ko Hlaing said recently in the Myanmar Time journal, “The president was ‘likely’ to declare a general amnesty at the ‘time he sees fit’.” Indeed, equality under the laws must uphold the rule of laws based on the principle of human rights in this new era of democracy.

The president also welcomed those whose opinions are different and wanted anti-government groups to participate in the democratic process, provided they accept the constitution. This assertion is not balanced, but a welcoming gesture for further political debate in the country. On the contrary, Lintner again warned that, “For instance, the new constitution gives the commander in chief of the armed forces the power to directly select one-fourth of all parliamentary seats, and allows the president to hand over power to the army in the event of a ‘national crisis’ — a term so vaguely defined it could mean a popular pro-democracy uprising. There is no indication that Gen. Thein Sein has any intention to change this.” Lintner clearly read the mindset of the army’s general based on the history of the past and the present. A closer look should be examined by local politician whether the president keeps his own words.

A constitutional and institutional change will never be completed unless an attitude change is accomplished among local people in cultural diverse ethnic nationality. David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, asserted that “needs of local development in health, education, land management, and economic reforms, including urgently needed micro-financing projects. These fundamentals have been lost in the haze of a system of control and the various responses by communities to survive under continued military rule (with a thin civilian facade for now).” Over 400 farmers lost their local farm land from 1996 soon after the government of Union of Myanmar (the former ruling junta) confiscated in Mon State during the construction of Unocal –Total gas project for security and building a new army camps in the village’s farms. Land rights must adequately address in the new laws for the survival of local farmers and peasants. Workers and farmer’s rights under the laws should be debated in the local state and division assembly as an urgent matter. Federalism in Burma will only succeed when people of Burma from all ethnicity share the pain and gain. A political power without morality is a sin. A free and fair society will maintain peace only when people respect a dignity of a person. This is the campaign that I am devoted to walk along with global friends who wish Burma success in the 21st century.

“Federalism is one mechanism for reconciling as far as possible. The autonomy of diverse regions within a nation with a sufficient degree of national and governmental unity,” Christopher D. Gilbert asserts in his book Australian and Canadian Federalism. He added that, “Perhaps the more diverse are the regions comprising a federal nation, the looser and more de-centralized that nation’s federalism needs to be.”

The faith of over 50 million people in Burma is on President U Thein Sein’s hand. He has an opportunity to liberate them as once for all or he lives with guilt of political coward if he lacks of courage to restore a united Burma under his own principle of “clean government, fair government, just government” as he claimed in his opening speech in March. Federalism is not a treat to the sovereignty of Burma/Myanmar. It is strength of the nation that competes to the world new social, economy and political changes in the 21st century.

May 2011

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