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Burma’s Way to Federalism and Mon Political Trends in Modern Burma

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With the fall of communism and the emerging trend of liberal democracy and economic development in Southeast Asia over the past twenty years, peace is a desire of each individual in Burma and beyond. Burma’s new leaders throughout the political spectrum have been searching for a win-win conclusion for Burma under the country’s new roadmap to democracy, which will attract foreign investment, but refrain from providing constitutional tenure, which will safe-guard the best interests of investors and local key players. With the current cease-fire process and other reform agendas proposed by the new Parliament, Burma’s political observers from home and abroad view the glass as half-full, rather than half-empty. Mon leaders, from both armed and non-armed political forces, believe that only the provision of credible leadership will prove that the window is for true political resolution under the new and proposed constitution for both Mon State government and Union-level government.

This essay is written by a citizen-journalist in order to express alternative views, while also exploring a balance of views from relevant sources. The essay will reflect on the historical context of the Mon people and their own struggle for self-determination in Burma, as well as providing argument upon the wider issues concerning the new debate on federalism by use of relevant sources of scholarly knowledge. The author has limited this essay to an emphasis on ethnic peoples’ rights and interests in the political trends of modern Burma, and will be exploring the theme of ‘federalism and constitutional rights’ based on the context of Burma’s current political climate.

The Myanmar Times, a Rangoon-based weekly journal reported that “The ‘peace’ agreement was reached on August 15th, at the beginning of a two-day meeting in Yangon between the government’s Union Peace[-making] Working Committee (UPWC) and ethnic representatives from the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT). The meeting was aimed at generating a single draft text for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). NCCT leader U Naing Han Tha (aka) Nai Hong Sar, who is also the chair of the New Mon State Party armed ethnic group, said [that] instituting a federal system of governance was ‘the most important thing for our ethnic minorities’.”

Historical Context of Mon Political Events

On July 23, 1958, Mon leaders, led by Nai Aung Tun, chairman of the Mon People’s Front (MPF), signed a ceasefire agreement with the U Nu Government; following which the Mon leader and his comrades held a public conference during a peace ceremony in Moulmein, the old capital of the Mon Kingdom. In his key note speech, presented in both Mon and Burmese, Nai Aung Tun said that ‘a quality for political rights under the parliamentary-democracy is our core mission, while we [renounce] a narrow-minded national assimilation policy of the government in our country’. In the fifty-four years following this first peace agreement reached between the Mon armed group and political leaders, and the government of Burma, the hope of equal political rights has not been achieved until this current generation. History is not only in the past, but serves as a lesson for current leaders.

Mon leaders and thirteen Mon delegations, led by Nai Hla Maung, together with other ethnic leaders, attended the Taung Gyi Conference on June 8, 1961, to engage in discussion and debate regarding the formation of a Federal Union of Burma. At the conference, Nai Hla Maung addressed the multi-ethnic delegations and pronounced that Burma had two unresolved issues; that of nationalism, and a narrow-minded policy toward assimilation among ethnic races. Unless these two issues were addressed, Nai Hla Maung maintained, unity would never be achieved, and the union would never be established. Despite having been merely acknowledged in domestic politics in the early 1980s, Mon leaders continued to seek an equal partnership in Burma’s social, cultural, and political affairs prior to the 1988 student-led uprising.

The sole foundation of peace-building in Burma lies in constitutional rights, and as such, the failure to safe-guard ethnic peoples’ constitutional rights has plagued the country with armed and political conflict for over sixty years. In late 2004, Mon and other ethnic leaders drafted a new model for the ‘Federal Union of Burma’ under the initiative of ‘Ethnic Nationalities Council’ in the liberated area of the Thai-Burma border; the document has been widely read amongst Burma’s ethnic peoples and some Burmese races.

Aspiration for Federalism in Burma

A model of federalism can be found in different processes and institutions from Western democratic nations. The American federal system is matured, but not perfect in modern political thought; American federalism embraces the following elements, but this essay is exempt from examining the full text of these elements:

A union of autonomous states;

The division of powers between the federal government and the states;

The direct operation of each government, within its assigned sphere, upon all within its territorial limits;

The provision of each government with the complete apparatus of law enforcement; and

Federal supremacy over any conflicting assertion of state power

American federalism has been exercised since the nation was created in May 1785. The core constitutional documents have been reviewed and amended until 1790, when, on January 28th, the president informed congress that North Carolina had ratified the Constitution on November 21, 1789. After over two hundred years of modern political maturity, America has led the world with respect to the core principles of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’.

Constitution rights continues to be a legal battle line to new Mon leaders and other ethnic leaders in post-2012 Burma, and in anticipation of the 2015 general election. The long suffering due to armed battle between ethnic groups and government troops has served no solution, and has left the nation lagging behind its neighbouring countries. However, the legal battle line is much more complex than the armed battle grounds. Well-informed Burmese leaders used to take the upper-hand at the negotiation table in all rounds of the peace process, in both domestic and international politics, from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.

In order to move forward towards a workable federalism in Burma, the balance of power within the Union and State Governments must be examined by both legal and political experts. Australian political scholar, Don Aitkin (1980) asserts two key assumptions in relation to Australian federal issues;

The desire for a political arrangement of convenience, wherein existing interests and tensions make power-sharing imperative if the various groups involved are to come together at all; and

The need to preserve the special character and rights of diverse people who might otherwise be kept separate by differences in language, race, religion or economic status.

Scholars argue that ‘both sets of factors have, of course, operated in a certain federal system, but it has long been argued that only the first applied to Australia; that is, the community has been seen as homogenous that there could be no cultural or economic justification for federalism. The case of Burma’s way to federalism could be argued in both cases, while the second reason is considered to be the strong case’.

Burmese Way to Federalism

To better understand the concept of federalism, in line with the perception of the people of Burma’s ethnic communities, Professor Williams and Dr. Sakhong published a thesis in 2005 on this very subject, entitled ‘Designing Federalism in Burma’, with a total of 250 pages in English and Burmese translation. Both scholars argued that ‘federalism is a constitutional device which provides for a secure, i.e. constitutional, division of powers between central and ‘segmental’ authorities, in such a way that each is acknowledged to be supreme authority in specific areas of responsibility’.

Responsibility is the key concept in the power-sharing agreement between the Union and State Governments. Professor Williams and Dr. Sakhong further argued that ‘federalism is seen as a constitutionally established balanced between shared rule and self-rule: shared rule through common institutions and regional self-rule through the government of the constituent units or states’. For example, non-Burma state governments shall be taking over the responsibility of municipal services, local amenities such as recreational grounds, water, electricity, and gas supplied to the local populations.

Gradually, the local government shall be collecting tax and other revenue for goods and services; taxation which enables the improvement of health and education facilities, and other programs to the local people. Housing, road and transportation will be major issues facing many local poor people from Burma’s rural areas in the next 20-30 years. Local government shall take core responsibility for pressing issues such as land care, forestry and farming, while sharing the burden and duty of care to the constituencies. The joint responsibilities could be arranged at the ministerial lever after the core agreements are signed by the Union and State ministry.

Debate on Constitutional Rights

Constitutional rights are a critical battle-line for new Mon leaders, both within elected and non-elected politicians in Burma. On April 24, 1947, Burmese leaders, led by U Nu, signed a formal agreement in Maymo with other ethnic races’ leaders, for the formation of a Federal Union of Burma. The agreement stated that ‘the weight of opinion among the witness examined by us is that if there should be a Burma federation, the federal organ should deal with the following subjects: external affairs, defense, communication, currency, customs and titles, and honours’. This official statement was clearly indicated soon after the declaration of Burma’s independence in January, 1947.

Legally and morally, the winning of a constitutional battle is the core task of a politician; it is the test of a human’s intellect and character in modern political thought. According to Bernard Schwartz, Professor of Law, New York University (1979), ‘A constitution is naught but empty words if it cannot be enforced by the courts. It is judicial review that makes constitutional provisions more than mere maxims of political morality’. The author added that, ‘In practice, there can be no Constitution without judicial review. It provides the only adequate safeguard that has been invented against unconstitutional legislation. It is, in truth, the sine qua non of the constitutional structure’. These comments provide a plain message to legislators in Burma, including ethnic leaders seeking greater autonomy in Burma’s new political institutions. 

According to Colin Howard, Professor of Law (1980), ‘A constitution is likely to be successful and influential only to the extent that it reflects the basic assumptions and attitudes of the society to which it applies. In doing so, however, it affords also valuable measure of protection to those same attitudes and assumptions. It provides a text to which people can point to if and when any of the basic values for which their society stands comes under attack’. The Australian federal system is based on geography in practice, but also functions under the norm of ‘fairness’ and ‘liberty’ towards the citizens of the country. In his book, as quoted above, Professor Howard adds that ‘The art of constitution-making is to produce a document which combines the various features…into coherent and internally consistent whole, the finished product conveying an accurate description of a social and political framework in readily comprehensive language’.

Foregoing these imaginations while re-writing Burma’s constitution could confuse the process, as well as the persons involved in the peace process. Ford (2004) asserts that, ‘while constitutional reform be driven by the external economic pressure (and/or internal perceptions or responses to these), and may draw on external models and experiences, the outcome needs to be one that has local political relevance and legitimacy. The scholar further argues that ‘this directs attention firstly to an inclusive, locally-situated and transparent constitution-making process, resulting in an effective but open and even playing field, and secondly to the identity, motivations, and values of the players’. Most politicians in Burma, especially leaders from the military-affiliated groups, lack the notion of ‘locally-situated’ and transparency, to gain legitimacy.

Addressing the Local Autonomous Issues:

A cease-fire agreement will prove to be a minor component of peace-building unless legal and constitutional laws are amended in both State and Union parliaments. The Mon people, and other ethnic races, deserve no less than the Burmese race in governing local issues such as education, health, and national affairs; from teaching ethnic languages in public schools to the use of ethnic language in the courts. Public schools under the Seven States, and other special regional autonomy, shall be granted the right to teach and use native languages from primary school to secondary level, in all subjects of curriculum. Mon and other ethnic leaders cannot afford to miss these opportunities when they meet at the negotiation table in coming months.

Furthermore, the country’s current constitution (adapted in 2008) favours little legal and constitutional rights to ethnic races, despite the new government’s claimed approval rating of over 94% of the entire population. Mon State Government is much like a local municipal council, either in New York or Sydney, with little power or resources for governing local economy, social, education, and heath matters.

After efforts to gain constitutional rights proved unattainable in early 1948, late 1949, a group of Mon leaders took up an armed struggle. However, many ruling Mon elites, based in Rangoon and Moulmein cities, began looking for options for constitutional change in the late 1960s, while demanding the creation of a Mon State under the new constitution in 1974. Mon State was created in March 1974, with popular support of the Mon people, led by Nai Hla Maung and fourteen of his executive members. Mon State was created, but the executive power remains in the hands of the Burmese official[s].

The New Direction of the New Mon State Party

The New Mon State Party (NMSP) and its armed wing, the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), reached an un-signed cease-fire agreement with the ruling military government on June 29, 1995. After seventeen years of political deadlock between the peace and negotiation process, the NMSP returned to the legal fold in January of this year.

This week, an elected Mon MP spoke to Kaowao News over the phone from Moulmein City, the capital of Mon State, and stated that the Mon people must play a part in national political affairs, as well as local affairs. After nineteen years of the cease-fire process, leaders from the party have been seeking a ‘balancing act’ in modern politics. The leaders listen to the local population, but act ‘by force of circumstances’, as echoed by President Nai Htaw Mon, at the 2013 Mon National Conference, in Moulmein.

The party has been debating the aspiration to establish a federal model of political institution since the late 1990s, after the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won Burma’s first general election. Mon political leaders have realized that the time has come for a new political strategy to be adopted, if they seek to survive in the modern political trends of the country; key party members are well-informed on current geo-political trends, as well as the local norms. In official statements released by the party throughout the past nineteen years, it can be interpreted that, in political terms, Mon leaders are developing a new mentality, away from the power struggles, towards sustainable peace. As such, Mon leaders are seeking constitutional legitimacy in a locally-relevant, inclusive process through which the wider Mon and non-Mon populations accept the constitutional order as resulting from their input and consent to carry out political debate within its confines.  The process is long, but it is the course that Mon leaders cannot miss in its claim to legitimacy.

A New Pathway to Peace and Unity

It is a new hope, but Mon leaders have taken the risk, with little skills and experience in the ocean of legal affairs, to enter the political battle-line of the legal and constitutional framework. However, with the support of both internal and external constitutional experts, and the United Nations’ lead panel, Mon leaders expect to find a win-win solution.

As an elected Mon MP recently stated over a dodgy phone line from his Naypyidaw hostel, “we are looking for help, not only from Mon people in exile, but also anyone from other nationalities, NGOs, as well as the UN’s official help to enable a smooth transition, and win our interests for Mon State and the Mon people in lower Burma”.

“We don’t have our own media state to raise our voice, and our debate is rarely covered in local news”, he added with a lonely voice.

The loss of one person during the sixty-five years of civil war is a great and wasteful loss, if the objective of the revolution is not achieved, and thus, Mon and other ethnic leaders commonly agreed to form a genuine Federal Union of Burma. The biggest battle has been launched; federal and state constitutions must be rewritten and amended before the 2015 general elections. If Mon and other ethnic leaders lose this battle, the loss will be irreplaceable, but the spirit of revolution will continue to burn within.


The Mon’s Back ground political affair, in Burmese by Nai Tun Thein

Personal contact with elected Mon MP from Mon State and Naypyidaw

New Mon State Party’s Media Release

Schwartz, Bernard (1979), Constitutional Law, A Textbook, 2nd edition

Howard, Colin ( 1980), The Constitution, Power and Politics, Fontana/Collins

Aitkin , Don & Associates (1980), Australian Political Institutions, 4th edition, Longman Cheshire

The Myanmar Times Journal (August, 2014)

Williams, David. C and Sakhong, Lian H, (2005. The thesis title as ‘Designing Federalism in Burma’, UNLD Press, Chiang Mai

Ford, Jolyon (2004), Developing into what? Constitutional Change, Legitimacy and Economic Development in Asia, The Australian National University E-Press

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