Why are ‘secession’ and ‘federal army’ so crucial to Myanmar’s peace process?

Published on June 2, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The Global New Light of Myanmar – June 2, 2017

The second session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference which started on May 24th ended on the 29th, a day later than the originally scheduled. The conference brought together some 1,400 representatives from the government (executive branch), the parliament, the military, invited political parties, ethnic armed organizations and civil society groups.

Out of the 41 points discussed covering issues of political, economic, social, security, and land and environment, the conference was able to reach agreement on 37 points, largely in a consensus manner, with the ultimate goal of reaching a Union Peace Accord which is expected to serve as the foundation for durable peace in a federal Myanmar.

The agreed points included a Union based on democracy and federalism, with the right to self-determination; no ethnic races to be given special privileges; and states and regions to write their own constitutions and laws in accordance with the 2008 constitution.

The 37 principles, which were proposed by the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), were the results of state and regional level political dialogues, which include 12 with the political sector, 11 with the economic sector, four with the social sector and 10 with the land and environment sector.

In her closing remarks on the final day of the conference, Myanmar’s state counsellor and chairperson of the UPDJC said, “The agreements that we have been able to sign today mark a significant step on our path toward peace, national reconciliation, and the emergence of a democratic federal Union.”

Agreements have yet to be reached on key principles of federalism such as equality and self-determination, which have been kept for further deliberation and discussion in the next round of the peace conference, which will tentatively happen in six months.

Two most critical issues were on the question of ‘federal army’ and ‘secession’, which are the two inherent elements of a federal government envisioned by the country’s ethnic minorities.

The military, which plays a dominant role in politics and in the entire peace process, insists that there should be a single army or one national army under the new federal arrangement. However, the ethnic armed groups want to see a federal army which would allow them to retain their respective armed forces.

The question of federal army has been a topic of intense debate between the ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military since the days of discussions over the text of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

There are two basic differing school of thoughts. The Myanmar military believes that by allowing the ethnic armed groups to retain their weapons and personnel, there will be a constant threat to territorial integrity, national solidarity and potential armed conflicts between the union army and regional forces. It also holds a lingering concern that the union or federal government could end up having a limited control over state and regional governments, as happened during U Nu’s premiership, the first civilian government.

On the other hand, the ethnic armed groups argue that given the historical nature of the conflicts in the country where the army has suppressed their aspirations for autonomy, it is necessary for them to retain their armed forces to protect themselves in the event of unsuspected or unprovoked attacks from the Myanmar army, or at least as a deterring factor.

Under the federal army, the ethnic armed groups would also want to see their armed forces being transformed or integrated into state forces. Historically, ethnic minorities do not trust the Myanmar army, which is dominated by the majority Bama/Burman ethnic group, to safeguard and promote their fundamental interests, such as culture, language and tradition.

Many among the ethnic minorities also believe that because of the chauvinistic ideology of the Myanmar military and the civilian Burman elites in the past, their situation could even get worse if their armed forces are dissolved and the Myanmar army is given complete control of their internal security affairs. The underlying problem is lack of trust.

The other critical issue is the question of ‘secession’. Perhaps, this has been the most complicated and challenging one single issue the country faces since its independence from Britain in 1948.

Under the NCA text, the ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar army have agreed in principle to uphold the three national causes that have been championed by the successive military governments: non-disintegration of the union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, and perpetuation of national sovereignty.

According to the NCA text, all signatories have agreed to remain in the union. In other words, agreeing to the non-disintegration of the union means that ethnic armed groups have agreed not to support any activity or movement that could break up the country. It also means that they would not demand an independent state of their own.

However, the word ‘secession’ has an important historical significance to the country’s ethnic minorities. When the first constitution of independent Burma was drafted in 1947, the word ‘secession’ was inserted to allow the non-Burman ethnic nationalities to seek independence from the union after ten years of the formation of the Union of Burma.

The demand for federalism, which was construed by the Myanmar army as a secessionist movement, was also one fundamental reason why the army led by General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, thereby dashing the hopes and aspirations of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities, which entailed the ethnic armed groups to demand, at least in their initial years of formation, for complete independence or secession from the Union of Burma.

The opinion of the ethnic armed groups, particularly those that have been involved in the NCA drafting process, is that though they are willing to subscribe to the non-disintegration principle, they would not like to see the word ‘non-secession’ or ‘non-secessionism’ inserted into the Union Peace Accord.

As both issues of ‘federal army’ and ‘secession’ are crucial to the realization of the envisioned federal Myanmar, future talks and deliberations cannot avoid sorting out these disagreements. Perhaps, the best possible solution will be for both sides to listen to each other’s concerns and ready to compromise in the larger interest of forming a unified country.

These issues are crucial to the success of the 21st Panglong peace conference but perhaps the more important issue is to build trust between ethnic armed groups, and the Myanmar army and the elected civilian government, both of which are dominated by the Bama/Burman/Myanmma ethnic group.

The immediate concern for the UPDJC should be bringing on board the non-signatory groups of the United Nationalities Federal Council and the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, a combined strength of both armed groups which are larger and much more powerful than the NCA signatory groups. All these groups, and other groups which have not done so, should be allowed to hold national-level dialogues in their respective controlled areas.

Peace cannot prevail, at least will be very difficult to sustain, without the participation and support of all the armed groups, both signatory and non-signatory ones.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including ‘Democratisation of Myanmar’.

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