The South Asia Channel

The United States of Myanmar?

A federal system of government may be Myanmar's best step forward towards national unity and a more robust democratic process.

Myanmar soldiers patrol in Laukkai, the main city in the Kokang region of northern Myanmar Shan state, on February 16, 2015. Growing fighting between Myanmar's Army and ethnic Kokang fighters in a region bordering China has killed dozens in the past week and sent tens of thousands fleeing across the frontier, reports said on February 16. AFP / STRINGER        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Myanmar soldiers patrol in Laukkai, the main city in the Kokang region of northern Myanmar Shan state, on February 16, 2015. Growing fighting between Myanmar's Army and ethnic Kokang fighters in a region bordering China has killed dozens in the past week and sent tens of thousands fleeing across the frontier, reports said on February 16. AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Ongoing ceasefire negotiations between the Myanmar government and armed ethnic groups speak to a critical question: how might more than six decades of ethnic conflict be extinguished? The answer may lie, at least in part, in federalism.

With well over 100 ethnic groups and sub-groups, Myanmar is easily one of the most ethnically diverse countries on the planet. Unfortunately, it’s this very diversity that has been a key factor in keeping open the country’s long chapter of civil war, which has raged since its independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The 1947 Panglong Agreement between the government under independence leader Aung San and the Chin, Kachin, and Shan ethnic groups was drawn up to usher in peace through what was an early, and an admittedly vague, brand of federalism along ethnic lines. The deal, however, was quickly abandoned after political rivals gunned down Aung San later that year.

Agreement in more recent years has proven to be just as elusive. There were slapdash attempts in the 1990s and early 2000s to broker peace, but these hardly stuck. In 2011, for instance, a precarious 17-year ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Organization collapsed and breathed new life into a bloody conflict that has since forced more than 100,000 civilians from their homes.

Yet the violence that has flared across Kachin State is only one part of a much larger series of ethnic conflicts that have intensified in recent months, even as ethnic leaders have been actively engaged in multiple rounds of negotiations with the government. Earlier this year, violence once again erupted in areas of Myanmar that were previously at a lull, including Karen State and the Kokang region on the Chinese border. The fighting in Kokang became so intense that the Myanmar army began launching airstrikes, driving tens of thousands of civilians across the border and leading to a diplomatic tussle with China.

Indeed, veteran Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner said in an interview that the civil war tearing across the country “has not been this intense since the government launched offensives against ethnic Karen and communist forces in the 1980s.”

So where does Myanmar go from here?

Tied up in the ceasefire negotiations is the echo of Aung San’s early push for a federal Myanmar and the building of politically autonomous ethnic states. Until recently, this sort of dialogue was, like many other things in the country, taboo because it conjured up barbed images of secession. What’s more, decades of isolation offered Myanmar’s political top brass few opportunities to take stock of salient lessons borne from similar situations in other parts of the world.

But recently, ethnic leaders have begun to call more forcefully for a federal structure to be put on the table, making it a crucial sticking point in negotiations. Rather than splitting Myanmar apart, they, as well as many pundits, argue, federalism could stitch the culturally rich country together. Even Myanmar President Thein Sein has expressed support for a federal system in theory, stressing in February that it could very well help to promote national stability.

The idea has also gotten backing from Myanmar’s sainted opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the Panglong Agreement’s visionary Aung San. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has voiced a public commitment to the federal concept. But in the midst of a heated election campaign, NLD leaders have offered few specifics.

The real hitch, of course, is figuring out what federalism would actually look like for Myanmar. One scenario that could perhaps best prime the country to deal with ethnic conflict in the long run is a process of giving more powers to all states. On a basic level, this ought to include greater self-government in regards to administration, culture, education, and natural resources.

There would also need to be agreement on how armed ethnic groups might fit into a federal structure. A central demand of many of the ethnic leaders negotiating a nationwide ceasefire agreement is the creation of a federal army. But proponents have yet to articulate the idea in detail, and there are few examples of what shape this might take in practice. Top military leaders, such as army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, have also rejected the idea outright.

Indeed, the military itself stands as perhaps the key roadblock in the way of more muscular moves toward federalism. Many such moves would hinge on making changes to the constitution, and the military, which holds an effective veto over the amendment process, has made plain its reluctance to shift in that direction, fearing changes that might strip it of any of its power. “Nothing can happen unless you sit down and talk about the constitution – what kind of country [Myanmar] should be,” Lintner told The Globe and Mail in March.

In short, there is still a dizzying job ahead in the push for building a federal Myanmar.

This isn’t to suggest that federalism should be turned into a silver bullet. Regardless of any power-sharing structure that ultimately emerges, what’s critical for generating lasting peace in Myanmar is that the government addresses the knotty history of abuse and persecution of ethnic minorities that has been wracking the former global pariah for more than a half-century.

Still, overall, federalism could be Myanmar’s best step forward. Supported by diplomatic pressure from the West for more fundamental constitutional reform, a political structure that provides some degree of autonomy and broad powers to ethnic states could pivot Myanmar’s policymakers toward a path that promotes national unity and a strengthened democratic process.

AFP/Getty Images

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