Federalism, peace process on Suu Kyi’s Canada agenda

Published on June 6, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Nikkei Asian Review – June 6, 2017

Rohingya crackdown a likely point of dispute on Myanmar leader’s tour

At the invitation of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is making her first trip to Canada as her country’s de facto leader, from June 5 to 9. The two leaders plan to meet on June 7.

The meeting is significant for a number of reasons. First, it comes a few days after Myanmar held the latest round of talks aimed at ending conflict with ethnic armed groups, a process dubbed the 21st Century Panglong peace conference. Second, the meeting follows the United Nations Human Rights Council’s appointment of a three-member team to investigate alleged abuses by security forces against Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar. Third, it comes amidst fresh uncertainty over the direction of U.S. policy on Myanmar and the future of Washington’s role in promoting democratic values around the world.

In their bilateral talks, Suu Kyi and Trudeau will discuss federalism and democratic reforms, as well as regional peace and security and the importance of promoting democracy, good governance and human rights in Myanmar.

A key issue is how Myanmar could learn from the experiences of federal government in Canada, and how Ottawa can help to build a stable democratic society in Myanmar. Trudeau said on June 2: “Our country plays a strong role in promoting democracy, the rule of law and national peace in Myanmar. We will continue to advocate for further reforms in Myanmar, especially those that support ethnic and religious minorities, women, and young people.”

In the recently concluded peace conference, headed by Suu Kyi, participants from a range of armed ethnic groups reached agreement with government and military negotiators on 37 of the 41 points discussed, covering matters ranging from politics, economy and society to security, land and environment. The talks took place in a largely consensual style, with the ultimate goal of reaching an accord to serve as the foundation for durable peace in a federal Myanmar.

However, the conference was unable to reach agreement on some key principles of federalism, such as equality and self-determination, which have been fundamental demands of Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups since before the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.

One fundamental disagreement was on the issue of a single, national army, a key demand of the Myanmar military. Ethnic armed groups are seeking a federal army model. The other major disagreement was on the insertion of a clause barring secession from Myanmar, also demanded by the military but rejected by the ethnic armed groups.

Myanmar is still in the process of searching for a suitable federal system for the country. For example, there is no detailed plan or agreement on the sharing and devolution of power between the proposed federal government and the states and regions, nor on resource and revenue sharing. One other important point of contention is the separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judicial branches of government, and a guarantee of checks and balances.

Canada’s robust and well established federal system can be an important model and foundation for federal reform in Myanmar. Canada is also a society of mixed languages, cultures and religions, but has established strong democratic institutions underpinned by respect for human rights. Myanmar can learn how national powers are delegated to the 10 provinces and three territories, and how resources and revenue are shared equitably.

Violent setback

The second important issue that is likely to figure in the leaders’ meeting concerns ethnic and religious minorities. While the Trudeau government supports Myanmar’s ongoing democratic reform process, many international observers have expressed concerns over the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities inside the country, particularly in the aftermath of a security crackdown against the Rohingya following insurgent attacks on police posts in October.

Many governments and organizations have suggested that Suu Kyi has done too little to prevent violence against the Rohingya. There is also a growing international lobby urging the Myanmar government to accept a U.N.-backed fact-finding team established on May 30 to look into alleged abuses in the Rohingya conflict.

Since both the National League for Democracy government led by Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military have rejected the mission, it is likely that Trudeau and Suu Kyi will disagree over the Rohingya issue.

The U.N. adopted a resolution setting up an independent international mission in March, following a detailed report released by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in February, which suggested that some of the human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity. The resolution was put before the U.N. Human Rights Council by the European Union and supported by other countries, including the U.S., to ensure full accountability for perpetrators and justice for the victims.

Countries such as China, India, Cuba and Myanmar did not support the resolution. The NLD government has openly criticized and disassociated itself from the resolution and has said it will only take into account the report of a commission led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan which was established in August, before attacks by Rohingya militants on police border posts triggered waves of violence.

Finally, as Canada is one of the most robust democracies in the world, it is important for a transitional country like Myanmar to look for leadership when it comes to matters concerning democracy and federalism. This is particularly important because the U.S. government, under President Donald Trump, has yet to spell out a concrete policy on Myanmar.

Like the U.S. and some other western democracies, Canada was a source of support and motivation for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement during the years of military dictatorship, as well as accepting thousands of immigrants and refugees from Myanmar during that time.

Suu Kyi’s visit is also special on a personal level. Not only does she have thousands of supporters and admirers in the country, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient is also one of a handful of people to have received honorary Canadian citizenship.

The visit will largely be diplomatic and mutually beneficial, but not entirely pleasant for either of the two leaders.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen 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 several books on Myanmar, including “Democratization of Myanmar.”

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