Myanmar’s New Democracy’s First Task: Ethnic Conflict

The swearing in on March 30 of Htin Kyaw, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), as Myanmar’s first truly civilian President since 1962 might seem the light at the end of the tunnel for a country that last year saw the first democratic elections in decades. But more realistically, this is just the beginning of the challenges Suu Kyi and her party will have to face.

Paramount among these is the ongoing civil war that has plagued the country since it obtained independence from the British in 1948.

“In order to trace the root causes of the conflict, one has to go back to the colonial period. In response to British rule, the Burmese developed hyper-nationalistic ideas according to which Burmese-speaking people should dominate the country,” said La Nan, the Joint Secretary General of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of the country’ largest and best organized insurgent groups. “This war is not about money and power, it is about nationalism.”

La Nan’s prognosis is shared by Kachin civil society members, and arguably by other ethnic groups. “We are historically, religiously and culturally different,” Lum Zawng, a lawyer and member of the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP), told Asia Sentinel. “The military must accept federalism.”

How federalism in Myanmar would look like remains unclear, but it would certainly involve devolving power from the center to the periphery.

“People want to elect their states’ chief ministers, they want to get more resources because so much of them are from ethnic areas,” said Tom Kramer, a researcher with the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute (TNI). “There are many things that can be improved and there are many models to follow, but if you keep on having this centralized state ruled by the army problems will not be solved.”

Whether the armed forces – which still play an essential role in national politics – would be willing to ditch the current model remains uncertain. Doing so would mean amending the Constitution approved by the former military junta in 2008 and changing their approach to the ethnic conflict, none of which appears to be happening. That the military is not overly glad to amend the current text became obvious during the selection of the new President.

Htin Kyaw may be respected by other politicians and loyal to Aung San Suu Kyi, but it is the latter voters wanted as the country’s leader. And yet, clause 59 (f) of the Constitution - according to which individuals with foreign a foreign spouse or children, such as Suu Kyi, cannot hold the presidential post - could not be modified in the run-up to November’s elections.

It is easy to see why the Tatmadaw – the military - is unwilling to modify the country’s fundamental laws, for it is precisely the constitution that makes the army essential in ruling the nation. The text allows the armed forces to nominate six of 11 members in the National Defense and Security Council, a government body which oversees decisions pertaining to security, and provides the commander-in-chief with the authority to choose the home affairs, border affairs and defense ministers. It also reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament to Tatmadaw officers - a provision which is tantamount to a de facto veto power over constitutional amendments, since to modify the text a 75 percent majority is needed.

Recent years have not witnessed a conciliatory approach on the battlefield either. In 2009, just before the liberalization process led by the Thein Sein government began, the armed forces attacked the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the militia of the Kokangs. A massive offensive was unleashed against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the KIO’s armed wing, in 2011. And as recently as last autumn, with the elections already underway, the Tatmadaw was also fighting in Shan State, displacing thousands of people.

Pessimists argue that the very existence of a civilian government in Naypyidaw makes the conflict more important for the army, which will increasingly need the civil war to justify its preeminence over other institutions. “The military is trying to build an important role for itself,” contended Dawng Hka, the spokesperson of the KIO in Myitkyina, commenting on the clashes that took place between the army and the KIA in November.

Besides opposition from army circles, a major challenge for reformers is the very nature of the ethnic states, as they all host “minorities within the minorities” whose rights need to be defended in order to ensure stability.

Shan State, the most ethnically diverse areas in the country, is home to at least nine main ethnic groups, many of which boast their own militias and not all of whom are on good terms with each other. In recent months, for instance, the Shan State Army – South (SSA-S), an offshoot of former drug lord Khun Sa’s Mon Tai Army (MTA), deployed its troops against the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), a Palaung rebel group which has been very active in recent years.

According to KIA sources, the SSA-S must have been egged on and possibly supported by the Tatmadaw, but the fact remains that two ethnic minorities, both belonging to Shan State, are coming to blows.

It may be because of the sheer difficulty of this task that the NLD has so far failed to put forward a detailed answer to federalist aspirations. Are local ethnic armed groups to become a federal army, as some argue, or should they give up their weapons and transform into political parties, as others suggest?

What about revenues from natural resources? Myanmar is rich in jade, gold, copper and oil, but the majority of these are located in ethnic areas - jade alone, according to a report published by Global Witness, was worth 48 percent of Myanmar’s GDP in 2014, and nearly all of it comes from Kachin State. Should jade be taxed by the local government or by the central one? These questions are looming larger and larger and are likely to grow even heavier in the future.

Michele Penna ( is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He is based in Myanmar.