Time to raise questions: What NLD government can resolve ethnic issues under 2008 Constitution

By Salai Ceu Bik Thawng

Already past half of its term into power after its over 900 candidates being elected into Parliament, the NLD-led government now has only one year, 2019, to perform its governance work freely. In the remaining term, the de facto leader of government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, wants to hold Union Peace Conference at least three times, and intends to amend the constitution based on the outcomes (which will become as Pyidaungsu Accord) from the conferences. In fact there is no much hope from the UPC. The Union Accord has been signed for two times and a total of 51 points of agreement have been achieved. Nevertheless, any of the points in the agreement is not serious enough to be considered for charter amendment.

Amending of the constitution through the NCA process or Parliament channel is also infeasible for Tatmadaw (the military) has the power of veto and it minimal of political will. So if there are changes in the constitution before the next 2020 election, they are likely to be of little importance and would not be the kinds that carry characters of federal democracy.

Within the remaining period of its term, the NLD led government should do its utmost through the mechanism of administration and parliament to bring about changes that would ensure the rights of ethnic minorities of the country. Of the many changes that the NLD can make with ease without touching the military and the constitution, I would like to highlight ten areas for change which are critical for ethnic groups.

  1. Ethnic mother tongue based education system

Regarding this mother tongue-based education system, academics, a host of university student unions and ethnic minority groups in Myanmar have long expressed the need incorporate it into the education system. To cite one instance, an extensive paper compiled by ENAC highlights the strong desire of ethnic groups for the system, the system becoming an international norm, the practice of the system with ease in those countries with language groups even more diverse than Myanmar, and the important role of the system in developing trust and peace.

Therefore, such reasons that successive government has given for not supporting the mother tongue-based education system as “too diverse, too costly, and divisive” are no longer valid in this age. And the integration of this system into the mainstream education is also not a kind of affair that should not be shunned on account of Tatmadaw and the constitution.

Concerning this mother tongue-based issue, the NLD-led government has remained silent thus far. It is time to disclose the real position whether the party leader’s comment that she does not like the system is true.

  • Natural Resource Sharing

We all know for a fact that ethnic armed conflicts in this country is closely related with natural resources extraction. That is the reason why natural resource issue is one of the five key topics put on the agenda for negotiation process in 21st century Panglong Conference. In a paper presented at the peace conference by UWSA, the strongest ethnic armed organization, it clearly stated that the practice of natural resource extraction in states is like “a banditry of ethnic belonging”.

I myself have conducted a research on natural resource sharing and founded that all the leaders in each state want a system in which a larger share of earnings from the natural resources revenue in their areas goes to their own states. The majority of them claims a ratio of 70/30 while ratios of 80/20, 60/40, and 50/50 are preferred by some of them respectively.

Some politicians (mainly Burmese) complain the ratios are too much in favour of states. In fact, similar rate of ratios are widely practiced in many other countries, especially among federal system nations. In Indonesia, for instance, Aceh State receives 70 per cent of revenue from its natural wealth sector, a fact contributing to the success of peace process in the country – a good example for countries in civil war involving natural resources.

A similar resource sharing can also be found in Malaysia where apart from oil and gas, governance of natural resources is basically delegate to subnational governments.  In Myanmar, opposite to those regional countries, a lion share from the sector go the central government while budgets transfer back to states as fiscal decentralization account for less than 8 per cent.

  • Religious Rights

In this religion concern, we have not witnessed any distinct difference of policy between the previous USDP-led government and the incumbent. In other words, NLD-led government so far does not live up to the expectations of minority groups in terms of religion. Though some religious leaders extend their understanding to the government on the ground that it is taking time in order to avoid the possible response from religious extremists such as Ma-Ba-Tha and ARSA, it is hard to understand the motive of the government for it take decisive legal actions in some instances involving the interest of the party, government authority and personal interest.

As secularism discourse is clearly stated in article 1(e) of the NCA, ethnic minority groups (especially those groups that believe in faiths other than Buddhism) desire building a state in which state and religion separate clearly which have been deeply intertwined in Myanmar, the country of plural society, for haft a century long.

In other words, religious minority groups want to stop the use of state mechanism by the government in religious affairs by dismantling religious bodies run by the state like ministry of religious affairs (MoRa) and State Sangha Mahanayaka Committee (Ma-Ha-Na). These state run religious institutions do not help the country and keeping them is a waste of state coffers so that it should better go to police, legal institutions and education sectors. This will help the state establish the rule of law, trust between different faiths and stability.

The government should also give official recognition to religious buildings and lands owned by these groups by issuing registration documents. In Chin State where 86 per cent of the population is Christians and more than 2,000 church buildings constructed ever since the early twentieth century exist. In spite of this, no single religious building in Chin State has been issued license under the law of Religious Land Building Registration since the independent period to date.

4. The need to make revision to boundary lines of states and regions

We ethnic minorities (especially Kachin, Shan, Chin and Rakhine) feel that part of our State territory has gradually been taken and incorporated into the lowland. I am from Chin State and I have and still witnessing part of my home state’s territory being taken and added to Sagaing and Magway regions which cases are even continuing in the period of NLD regime today.  

Taking advantage of articles 52 and 53 in the Constitution, the government can re-delineate the borderlines of states and regions in the country. Though some cases warrant the support of a two thirds majority in Pytaungsu Hluttaw, normally the re-delineation can be done without necessarily carrying the case to the super majority if wisely initiate. Of course everyone know that handling this states’ boundary issues is so sensitive and cannot be completed overnight; however, at least it is time the government show its will to start to resolve the issue from now as the case is no longer possible to hide and ignore.

5. Time to stop imposing uniforms

Myanmar is a union comprised of peoples of diversely different ethnic, faith and cultural backgrounds. The imposing of standard uniforms dress is unnecessary. Ordering public sector employees and schoolchildren in ethnic minority areas to do standard uniforms (longyi and laykadone shirts) amounts to imposing of Burmese culture and hence a kind implicit violating of human rights of these peoples who are not used to wearing the dress culturally.

In areas like Chin State where roads are muddy in rainy season and the weather very cold in winter, it is totally inappropriate for schoolchildren to go to school in such thin longyis that only adds to the cold. They should rather be wrapped in warm clothes. Forcing such uniform on these schoolchildren is in fact a matter of unfairness to them. For school uniforms, states or townships or schools themselves should be allowed to make their own choice base on their context – location, weather and culture etc…

Except those particular civil servant sectors like soldiers, polices, firefighters, the Red Cross staff and nurses etc…, state employees should not be forced to wear uniforms. Besides, making ministers and MPs wear national dress, including collarless shirts and longyis, is a very outdated idea.

6. To designate national and state days as public holidays

Following the practice of national days of Chin and Mon which are held highly important by the two ethnic groups, the people of Rakhine also starts celebrating their own national day. Kachin and Shan also place great importance on their respective State Days, and the former also holds its traditional “Manaw” festival in very high regard. (It is on purpose that some states do not celebrate national days because any of the national races in those states does not exceed 50 per cent of the state population). Karen New Year, among other important days, is given ultimate status by the Karen people while Karen Revolution Day is also placed high in their community.

Thus, the Union should grant any one of each of ethnic groups’ valued day as public holiday within the territory of their own respective communities and states if not in the Union level. However, it is still not permitted sadly, and early this year, Chin State parliament passed Chin National Day as the state’s official holiday, but Naypyidaw did not allow it on the flimsy ground that the country already has too many holidays.

7. Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)

FPIC is a process to be observed by project contractors in prior to implementing projects in a community. In other word, the process requires the contractors to conduct prior consultation with the locals first and do the projects only after they achieve the consent of the community. So that the norm is clearly stated in articles 10,19,29 and 32 of the United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) many other international laws and norms.

Ethnic groups in Myanmar, believe that this could be one of the protection mechanism for them, blessed with rich or natural resources. So far the government of Myanmar has only partially endorsed this practice in their existing laws and procedures such as Ethnic Rights Protection Law article (5) and EIA procedure section (36) using the term ‘C’ for consult not consent trickily.

Although there have been a series of discussions and negotiations, asking for the practice of FPIC by ethnic groups in the process of Union Peace Conference, the government (ruling NLD and Tatmadaw) so far keep denying to accept the practice fully. Thus, the peace agreement part (2) under the name of Pydaungsu Accord, stakeholders could only agree to the wording of ‘consult’ not consent which is not qualify to FPIC concept. In fact, NLD government can easily enact law in Parliament this regard by fully endorsing the norm if they really want to see ethnic people happy. 

8. To set minimum quotas for states

One Mon ethnic armed organization leader told me that he related to the commander-in-chief how the position of president rotates among the seven members of Federal Council in Switzerland and how it helps in building trust between different language groups of France, Italy, Germany and Austria which really contribute no group intent on seceding from the country.

In Myanmar, despite the powerless figurehead position, head of state (the country) has been held by leaders from ethnic minorities two times by Shan and Karen, the position of real power, head of the executive, has never been in the hands of them over the course of seven decades since independence. As it took more than two centuries for an African American in America to become president, I wonder youths from minority groups in this country dare to dream that the same history would happen in Myanmar. In fact, the present government should have adopted a policy of filling 30 per cent of union level political positions with those from minority groups. More importantly, the government should make a law that from 20 to 30 per cent of posts in public sector and the same range of percentage of places in schools should be set aside for ethnic minorities as a minimum quota.

In Switzerland, German language group that account for 60 per cent of the total population shows its magnanimity towards other groups by sharing of power on equal basis by accepting even the system of distributing the power of head of executive. Likewise, in this time of national reconciliation the leaders of Bamar majority group should abandon their chauvinistic view based on being the majority group and distribute powers to layers and groups.

Even, in already stable countries like India, and Malaysia quota system is still extensively used to subnational and ethnic lines. It is utter unfairness to put youths from both the mainland and ethnic minority areas with an extensive gap of disparity in terms of basic infrastructures in competition against one another on equal terms.  

9. To hold elections separately for union and state/region level parliaments

Elections for union level parliament (Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw) and state level parliament should be held separately. This system of holding elections in different periods of time is adopted by several countries, especially federal system societies. By doing so, it deepens public understanding of the importance of state and union level parliaments and admirations as well as the elections themselves.

Holding elections separately will also have the effect of reducing election-related confusions and difficulties the voters encounter in general election in which they have to cast three or four ballots simultaneously. To do this, again, the government does not need to amend the constitution. It can do freely just by amending the election laws.

10. The need to reexamine the posts of ethnic affairs minister

Yangon is a place built by Mon people, and something is going wrong when there is no place for Mon affairs minister in the city whereas, Rakhine and Karen have. Around 2011 and 2012, Mon initiated census collection in an effort to achieve a place for their ethnic affairs minister, according to Constitution section 262(a)(4), but failed. One of Mon activists told me that the government required them to come up with documents that trace back up to seven generations making the process of making changes in national registration card very difficult.

The government should disclose to the public the list of national races, enumerated with its question number (40) in 2014 census. It is of unfairness of the government to disclose only some areas and groups when they want to take political advantage such as revealing Kachin State demographic in Union Peace Conference.

Although no one know the exact demographic of the country in term of ethnicity except government leaders since the data is being kept secret, however people put huge doubt on the military regime’s creation of 29 posts of ethnic affairs minister by calculating with 0.1 percent of the country population according to the Charter.  Therefore, it should disseminate the census list of all national races publicly, instead of hiding it, especially for reexamine ethnic affairs ministries.

Conclusion: the sooner the better

The incumbent government seems very cautious in tackling the above-mentioned sensitive issues not to offend the military and also very careful not to reopen old wounds which is to some extent understandable. However, on the contrary, ethnic minorities want the government to deal the issues right away, thinking it is better to have bitter arguments first to clear up the confusions and be at ease later.

In the false narrative of successive military regimes, they portray the union as peaceful and all national races live in harmony living off the same soil and water and there is no impartiality. Instead of weaving this false narrative of all groups living in perfect amity, they should honestly admit and accept distrust and wound among ethnic groups are deeply rooted especially between Bamar dominant and ethnic minorities, after that they should rather find ways to solve the problems by laying down bare facts and honest and open to one another.

Hiding wounds only will add to pain. For instance, stakeholders must have courage to come up with original maps of borderlines of states. And the old idea of trying to assimilate one’s weaker brethrens to abandon their own literatures and traditional costumes and to adopt one’s culture must be put a stop.

In other words, we should now learn lesson from our past seven decade-long history that forced assimilation does not help state-building process and building trust among member states of this union; only through delivering equal rights to all member groups could the union be rebuilt successfully.


Salai Ceu Bik Thawng is a Chin political leader currently serving as General Secretary at Chin National Democratic Party.

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