An Attempt to Build Democracy in Ethnically Diverse Burma

Published on November 22, 2006

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Irrawaddy – November 22, 2006

Burma’s 50-plus years of independence from the colonial yoke of the British has been beleaguered by many lingering issues – from democracy to ethnocracy – underscoring the need for meritocracy.

Succinctly speaking, democracy may be defined as the reigning in of peoples’ power directly or indirectly into a given institution; while meritocracy simply means democracy on the basis of merits. These two concepts may not be of great interest to some developed countries, but it is an inherent question for Burma and its people to reckon with. The fact that Burma, at present, is a country of seven states and seven divisions is, however, self-evident.

The opposing ideologies of the de-facto military regime and their political co-rivals in exile are diametrically opposed. The basic principles of the constitution drafted at the National Convention guarantees a decisive role for the military as the ultimate guardian of the states, while advocates of a federal Burma are also unlikely to acquiesce. Many ethnic minority groups see the Burmans as one ethnic group who should be accorded one state in line with other ethnic groups.

However, the National Convention is designed to maintain the status-quo – seven states and seven divisions – and the seven divisions are primarily dominated by the Burmans. Divisions, according to basic constitutional principles, are to be changed to “regions.”

In an attempt to pacify the longstanding grievances of minority ethnic groups in states and regions, self-administered areas (zones and divisions) are prescribed: five self-administered zones (one in Sagaing division and four in Shan State) and one self-administered division (in Shan State). Will this mathematics solve the ethno-political problems of Burma?

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Democracy has generally been practiced under two systems – parliamentary and presidential. This democratic structure itself can further be manifested in two different forms – direct and indirect (or representative) democracy.

Direct democracy is practicable only in an institution where all members or citizens can present themselves in the making of public decisions. Therefore, it is feasible in relatively small numbers of populations, such as community organizations or other civil societies, where decisions are reached with consensus or a majority vote of the people. An example of the first direct democracy was ancient Athens where the assembly had electorates numbering five thousand to six thousand people.

In today’s world politics, the political system of Switzerland is a unique example of direct democracy where citizens above the age of 18 take part in voting on a wide range of issues, including amendment of the constitution. On the other hand, Great Britain, India and the United States of America, among others, can be cited for indirect democracies with elected representatives.

In the case of Burma, introduction of direct democracy may not even become an issue. Precise statistics may not be available; nevertheless, the population of Burma is estimated to be more than 50 million. The idea of a parliamentary form of democracy was an impetus for the National League for Democracy at the time it attempted to form a parallel government when the then State Law and Order Restoration Council refused to honor the results of nationwide, multi-party general elections in 1990 in which NLD won a landslide victory – winning 392 seats out of the total 485 contested. The military-backed National Unity Party won 10 seats.

A majority of the military hierarchy and ethnic Burmans may opt for a parliamentary system, but an overwhelming majority of other ethnic nationalities are likely to choose federalism. The question here is whether Burma is prepared to have a unitary government with a strong central government or a federation where states enjoy a greater role in the affairs of their own governments.

Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopedia, defines meritocracy as “a system of government based on rule by ability (merit) rather than by wealth or social position. Merit means roughly intelligence plus effort.” The concept of meritocracy has no place in the psyche of the State Peace and Development Council. Arbitrary rule in a monopolized system reigns.

Skills and merits in the workforce are intrinsically important for a society to grow and thrive. But, on the contrary, cronyism, favoritism and nepotism dictate the modus operandi of the military bureaucratic structure, which does more harm than good for the country and its people.

Failure to encourage meritocracy means that many skilled Burmese workers and intellectuals living abroad will not return to their motherland. This ensures a brain-drain for Burma as a whole. Although one hopes to contribute in the rebuilding of the country, the state is the prime stakeholder in creating a conducive and responsive atmosphere for its citizens.

The cultural diversity found within a country is its primary beauty, many theorists believe. The positive consequence of the 1947 Panglong Agreement was paving the way for the unionization of Burma; the adverse side of the story was distrust and the surge of ethnic armed struggles.

Burma is predominantly a Buddhist country. It is neither an officially pronounced nor decreed theocratic state. Yet, religious restrictions and persecutions are rampant. The country sees little ethnic representation in the chain of military command under the successive military governments since 1962. This may roughly be construed as a covert but sinister campaign by the military leaders, and the issue is decisive for ethnic minorities.

The restoration of democracy and the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners are some of the concerns of the international community. But the deeper issues go beyond this high profile political landscape. Ethnic minority groups want to see – not only duties and responsibilities – but also appropriations and constitutional rights. The idealistic concept of the Union of Burma was initially conceived at the Panglong Conference with the notion that there is room for every ethnic nationality in an independent Burma.

The signatories of the Panglong Agreement acknowledged that there was distrust among the different ethnic nationalities. The armed revolutionary campaigns in the aftermath of the Panglong Agreement are still unabated in many areas today. The Burmans may form the bulk of the population in the country, yet each ethnic nationality remains the prime guardian of its own society.

It is an encouraging sign that the United Nations Organization has taken more pragmatic steps through the Security Council. The historic placement of Burma on the Security Council’s agenda on September 29, 2006, has had a tremendous effect both inside and outside Burma. It strengthens the morale of activists and politicians.

Now that the democrats are the majority in the US Congress, the confirmation of US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, the prime architect who pushed Burma’s case at the Security Council, is unlikely to succeed in January.

However, US foreign policy toward Burma is not expected to change considerably. Meanwhile, constructive democratization of Burma largely rests on the shoulders of two Asian nuclear rivals – China and India. Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari’s visit to Burma in November was proof of the UN’s continued engagement.

Any mediation or intervention for a stabilized and burgeoning democracy in Burma must carefully consider Burma’s ethnic diversity. Understanding Burma’s problems together with its multi-ethnic complexity can give the international community a comprehensive strategy. The monopolizing strategy of the SPDC will not stabilize Burma in the long run.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).