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Potential federalism in Burma: Interview with U Aung Htoo, Principal of Federal Law Academy

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U Aung Htoo is the principal of Federal Law Academy situated in Mai Ja Yang Town, a controlled area of Kachin Independent Organization, in Kachin State.

Federal Law Academy Principle U Aung Htoo
Federal Law Academy Principle U Aung Htoo

In a recent interview with U Aung Htoo by MNA reporter Aik Sai, discussion wavers around federalism and its potential benefits for ethnic groups.

Mon News Agency (MNA):
Could you tell us how you believe the recent Mai Ja Yang summit held by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) will impact the upcoming 21st Century Panglong Conference?

U Aung Htoo: Whatever it is, it is good that the ethnic armed groups who signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) and the non-NCA groups took the opportunity to hold talks. It means the ethnic armed resistance groups can get together whenever and wherever necessary. Having such talks adds further potential to the establishment of a union. I will acknowledge that. However, we cannot think that Mai Ja Yang summit is only beneficial if it is connected with the 21st Century Panglong Conference. That is not the only measure. Our view is that the 21st Panglong Conference is just like the peel of a fruit. We have not tasted its true flavour yet. It is currently just a name. There is no concrete information. Therefore, if there are baseless outcomes from the 21st Panglong Conference then the results can’t be used to write a new constitution.

There has been nothing mentioned as to whether the results from 21st Panglong Conference can surpass the original Panglong Conference. No one knows what can be done if the result from this new Panglong Conference is completely opposite from the original text. Additionally, while this conference is being held, there are laws, still in practice, that counter economic incentives throughout the states and the union. For example, as with the Myanmar Economic Zone Project Law in 2014, the government gave to wherever the project was situated; it gave the license, and also acknowledged special economic zone. The law could also be named the foreign investment law. All natural resources could be sold. The government also took over the states land, air and water rights in the 2012 Land Law. The states don’t have any rights. This law covers everything. Therefore, the military system continues and nothing has been decided yet. Ultimately, there is uncertainty regarding its effectiveness and it’ll be a waste of time having the 21st Century Panglong Conference. So, it isn’t realistic to compare the results from the Mai Ja Yang summit to the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

MNA: You just mentioned that the 21st Century Panglong Conference won’t bring many advantages. What can the ethnic groups bring to the conference and what should be done to ensure the conference is beneficial?

U Aung Htoo: We are not reaching peace nor ceasing civil war in the country by holding conventions. There are conventions held worldwide. This country has civil war and both sides, the government side and revolution [armed resistance] side, hold talks. It isn’t about the number of participants on either side. Therefore, it isn’t a problem to have one side with 50 representatives, while the other side only has 10 representatives. It is not a numbers game. Each side has only one voice. The side with 50 representatives has one voice and the side with 10 persons has one voice.

It is still acceptable to have a tripartite talk between the National League for Democracy (NLD) as one side, the Tatmadaw as another side, and then an ethnic armed groups as the third side. This will mean three voices, and the answer will be decided by these three voices. However, right now there is about 700 representatives and that means 700 mouths will be talking.

If we look at the last peace conference, there were 50-60 representatives. Each individual had 10 minutes to speak. That meant over eight hours were used up. Afterwards, the statements were recorded. How can a decision be made through this process? This could be the same for the 21st century Panglong Conference, resulting in uncertainty as to how the civil conflict can be solved. In all honesty, only two sides should be attending. What I see is that if the 21st century Panglong Conference proceeds in this way, the results will be similar to the second National Convention. This will take 10 to 15 years or more. The 2008 Constitution will become strong. That is what I believe.

MNA: Peace can be achieved only if tripartitle talks are held. However, now there will be multiple parties at the talks. Do you think the ethnic groups final proposals will be successful?

U Aung Htoo: Regarding the first point, we are not sure whether they [ethnic armed groups] have clear vision or not. That is one thing that they must decide by themselves. Additionally, there is the issue regarding the level at which the proposals will be accepted by the NLD government. The NLD will only proceed after the Tatmadaw [army] gives the green light. If the proposals are done in accordance to the NCA process, the Tatmadaw will continue to give green lights. Therefore, to go back to what I have said, in order to hold talks with two sides or even three sides, the NCA cannot proceed. However, if the NLD government is brave and goes ahead, it potentially could happen. Thus far, I have not seen such a thing.

MNA: What main topics should be discussed for the armed conflict to be solved and to achieve peace?

Aung Htoo: As I just said, the first point relates to sovereignty and the second point is about how to form Pyitaungsu [Union]. The third point is that we can only negotiate for the rights that are realistic. For the states, that is. Now, what we are proposing is that if we go with a federal union, there are two standard examples. One is the system that the United State is practicing, ‘duel federalism’, which has been in practice for over a century. This is a two-sided federal system. Federal government have ultimate and far-reaching laws with the states running their own governments. Both sides connect and the states are given the right to govern appropriately. However, such a system comes with its failures and human rights abuse can occur within the states regulations. For example, if we look at U.S history, a civil war took place because the southern states would not abolish slavery and eventually lost the war. In this instance, the federal system failed. Nowadays, when the federal system is used, the states in the union must safeguard human rights considerably.

That’s the first point. The second point is regarding the structure of the Pyitaungsu. The Federal Union is established with the power to recognize sovereignty and other powers must be included with the states and the union. Therefore, with that approach, for example, when a law is to be enacted, the federal union parliament has the power to pass it but only in policy form. Comparatively, the states have the power to activate the law. In 1962, Burma did not succeed, as the central power system did not work. Now, after 50 years, the entire country has almost turned into ash. The hungry young people are now working in Thailand and Malaysia for low wages, and this should be changed. When the changes take place, more power must be given to the states. Subsequently, the ethnic people within the states will work hard in order to compete with the world and the federal union will have a foundation. We will improve in the ‘asymmetric federalism’ system. The system denotes that the powers of the states within the union are given proportionate and varying powers. For example, the Hluttaw [parliament] is based on the population and based on the states, and the Amyotha Hluttaw [Parliament] is based on the states.

Amyotha Hluttaw must have equal representatives from all states to be definitive equality. However, this sole focus cannot be done, and what we propose is asymmetric federalism. It is a fundamental of unity and diversity. The diversity is integral. We have to research and acknowledge our differences and from that point, work for unity. This does not mean that we have to damage diversity while we are seeking for the unity. However, it is happening here and now. It has been going on for 50 years already. By justifying unity, they are destroying diversity. Therefore, this system needs to recognize diversity. To give an example, we all know about the electric power plant in Karenni State and the whole country has been benefiting from using that power. However, if you go and talk to the people in Karenni state, you will find out that they feel it’s unjust.

If we look closely at federalism, we can take Kachin State as an example. Kachin State has produced jades and precious stones for many years, but now there is almost nothing. The state has more than 300 mining companies. The number of companies that belong to the Kachin people are few but many are granted by the military government. This is necessary to think about. If we look at the Arakan State, we will see that they historically lived there freely. If their state people can tap into their natural gas, they would be rich. However, it is not the case. That is not right and it is not equal.

MNA: The last question is regarding the non-Bamar ethnic groups’ view that the Tatmadaw is Bamarizing [Myanmarizing] the country. What do you think of that?

U Aung Htoo: That is so true that they are using Myanmarization. I am a real Bamar but what they say is true. Now, in the army [Tatmadaw], after the 2nd senior general official level, there is no one from an ethnic group. That has been the case for a decade already.

If you look at the military training fields, you will only see statues of Barmar heroes or kings. You will see statues of Anawratha, Bayin Naung and Alaungpaya. Comparatively, if you go to Switzerland, you will see that there are 26 states and then you will see symbols from all the 26 states.

Furthermore, the worst crimes took place in ethnic areas, not throughout the mainland or Bamar state. That is the sad truth.

MNA: One last question, how can we solve these different views to become the same?

U Aung Htoo: Well, now, what we are talking about is a democratic country, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced it as a democratic country. If it is real a democracy, why not grant complete of freedom expression? Because I am here, it is okay to talk about this. However, if I am in Yangon giving a talk about this, I will be charged with some kind of article. Why can’t the government provide a real democracy? They should provide real democratic system. The ethnic groups have their own problems and need to solve them on their own.

Federalism is based on the states acting as a base. The states should have their rights so that democracy can be granted. Therefore, why does the government accept the ethnic armed groups that signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), while leaving out non-signatory groups as unlawful? This is abusing the law, and considering the non-signatories as unlawful groups could force them to lose trust with the public.

Recently, media groups were able to join the ethnic armed group summit because the Tatmadaw gave the greenlight; if this were not the case, no media group would be present.

What I want first is real democracy. The government must give the public freedom of expression, association, and gathering etc. Funding opportunities should be given to the public, but up to today, the government controls funds from reaching the public. The people live in poverty and no international aid reaches the people. Now, the public is required to provide money in order to register an organization, but why should this be? That is not real democracy. The public is waiting for the promise that Daw Aung San Suu gave; real change.

The ethnic people are also waiting for change they were promised as they rushed to vote for her party [National League for Democracy]. However, until today, nothing has changed. The only change is that Daw Suu took the place of U Aung Min. Nothing else. The government cannot produce an economic policy. They cannot stop the civil war yet and they do not have a policy for the federalism. They have not changed the constitution. Worse yet, they said they would amend the constitution later.

The constitution must be changed, and the structure of the whole country must be change with it.

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