The military is showing little sign of backing down, but the coup could have the unintended consequence of unifying Myanmar society in opposition, across significant ethnic divisions.
A month ago, citing dubious claims of electoral fraud in the November 2020 election, Myanmar’s military deposed the country’s democratically elected National League for Democracy government and its leaders.
The military has since cracked down with increasing violence against protestors, imposed nightly internet blackouts and arrested hundreds of activists and others opposing the coup.
Within Myanmar, and internationally, the focus has been on demands to recognise the NLD’s election victory and release its detained leaders.
Would federalism destroy the union of Myanmar, as the military asserts? Click here to comment.
However, there are also growing calls from within Myanmar’s anti-coup protest movement for deeper social and political reform, rather than just a return to the status quo.
An idea often cited by protestors and others supporting resistance to the coup, has been for the development of a genuine democratic federal union.
This has come from youthful protestors in the main cities, and from ethnic activists and civil society around the country’s borderlands.
The present interest in a federal state system has its roots in Myanmar’s past. Historically, the area of what is now modern-day Myanmar consisted of a varied patchwork of ethnicities.
Different systems of administration imposed by British colonial rule further entrenched ethnic differences.
While the Bamar majority make up around 68 percent of the population, other ethnic nationality groups such as Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Kachin and many others have their own distinct languages and cultures.
Their homelands are often adjacent to Myanmar’s borders.
The country’s long-running civil wars stem from the grievances of Myanmar’s non-Bamar ethnic nationalities, angry at not being equal partners in the country since the establishment of the Union of Burma in 1948.
Ethnic languages, cultures and political aspirations have been suppressed, and resources such as timber and minerals are often extracted from their lands.
People in ethnic areas usually do not benefit from these resources, but face brutalisation from the Bamar-dominated military.
A more equal and representative federal system in Myanmar has consequently been advocated for by ethnic civil society, ethnic political parties and ethnic armed organisations.
Federalism is a system of government involving territorially defined constituent units within a country.
It is often regarded as a way to maintain unity in diversity and balance shared and self-rule.
There is usually a central or federal level of government and governments of the constituent units. Powers over which things the constituent units or the federal government can make laws or extract taxes from are usually set out in the country’s constitution.
“Federalism is impossible, it will destroy the Union.”
– General Ne Win
An institution, such as an upper house of the central legislature, enables the constituent units to have representation at the federal level. While the United States is often seen as the template for federalism, there are many federal countries, including the world’s largest democracy, India.
In Myanmar, federalism is seen by many ethnic activists as a system that could allow ethnic-based territorial units greater autonomy over issues such as language, education and natural resources, while also enabling them to remain equal partners within the country as whole.
Indeed, many ethnic leaders believe this is how the Union of Burma was envisioned when it was first established in 1948.
Fears of secession and breakup of the country were later used by the military to justify the 1962 military coup and nearly 50 years of military rule that followed.
The 1962 coup leader, General Ne Win, even stated ‘Federalism is impossible, it will destroy the Union.’
The military’s obsession with preventing the perceived breakup of the country and seeing itself as central to the country’s politics, has been continued to the present day in its ‘three national causes’: ‘non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, and perpetuation of sovereignty.’
The current military-drafted 2008 constitution includes some federal elements, but most power stays at the centre, and much of it with the military.
Territorially, it divides Myanmar into seven ethnic states and seven Bamar-majority regions, with state and region parliaments and a bicameral Union parliament.
However, the military retains 25 percent of seats in all Union, state and region parliaments and three key ministries of defence, home and border affairs.
Additionally, the state and region governments have limited powers, cannot raise revenue from significant resources like minerals and timber, and the President of the Union selects and appoints their chief ministers.
While calls for establishment of a genuine democratic federal system are therefore understandable, the idea faces some enormous challenges.
One of the core issues is ending civil wars in ethnic areas. Will ethnic armies be integrated into existing security services, restructured or disbanded? There are around 20 ethnic armed organisations with varying degrees of territorial control. They often have political wings and administrations that provide services like education and health. However, few control sufficient territory to legitimately claim to represent most of the population in an entire state or region as they are currently demarcated.
There are also many militia groups aligned, to varying degrees, with the Myanmar military.
What would happen to these formations in a new federal system? Would some ethnic groups be disadvantaged by larger groups that gained more control over the levers of power within a particular state in the federal Union?
States and regions also vary greatly in size, population and natural resource wealth.
Could there be one Bamar state, incorporating the seven regions, or would this unit be too large and have too much political and economic power?
These questions all present significant complications to developing an equitable and functioning federal system.
The coup, ethnic politics and federal implications
The response from ethnic organisations and leaders to the coup in the coming weeks and months will be vital. The military may attempt to appeal to ethnic political parties and ethnic armed organisations, but few seem willing to openly engage with the junta at this stage.
However, the junta recently hosted a meeting attended by 53 out of 91 political parties that contested the 2020 election, including some ethnic political parties. Three former ethnic political leaders were also included in the military’s State Administrative Council. The SAC has even issued a list of objectives, one of which, it states, is ‘building a Federal Democratic Union.’
Ethnic politics would likely have been part of the military’s strategic calculations with the coup. It would not want to fight on multiple fronts in the countryside while also suppressing uprisings in the cities.
Indeed, it abruptly agreed a ceasefire with the Arakan Army, a Buddhist Rakhine armed group, after the November 2020 election. The Arakan Army has been the most effective and aggressive armed opponent the military has faced in recent years.
Developments at the periphery in Myanmar often have significance for what happens at the centre. However, other ethnic armed organisations have issued statements opposing the coup and supporting the civil disobedience movement. The Karen National Liberation Army, for example, has even provided security for protestors in parts of Karen state.
Right now, the military is showing little sign of backing down, but the coup may have longer-term unintended consequences – resistance to it may unify Myanmar society across significant ethnic divisions, setting in motion moves towards a more inclusive and representative democratic federal union in the future.