19 Aug 2019

More than halfway through its term, the prospect of peace looks dim for Myanmar’s ruling party.

The conflict-torn country encounters a standstill in the peace negotiations. The delay of the 21st Century Panglong Conference and Karen National Union suspending its involvement in the peace process does not aid the situation.

This is a setback for Aung San Suu Kyi’s and her administration’s mantle to overcome the seemingly perpetual ethnic conflict and to reconcile the country.

A closer look at the pitfalls of the constitution points us to a valid solution to advance the peace mission.

What are the significant hurdles in the peace negotiations?

The ethnic minorities have been long demanding for genuine federal and inclusive reforms. This was seen at the Panglong Agreement in 1947 and the conference at Taunggyi in 1961.

The period after 1962’s military coup resulted in a forceful assimilation in a bid to ‘burmanise’ the country. The establishment wanted to build a monolithic society, highlighting the superior role of the Bamar-majority and declaring the ethnic minorities as enemies of the state.The absence of trust deriving from a shared past has always been one of the greatest issues of the currently pursued reconciliation process.

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was the basis for a viable peace agreement. But, some ethnic armed organisations were not satisfied with the content. It needed to be signed before the Union Peace Conference (UPC), a crucial element in the country’s peace process.

The contested points of the NCA include the ‘non-disintegration of the union’, ‘non-disintegration of national solidarity’ as well as the ‘perpetuation of national sovereignty’. Signing the NCA would mean a commitment to the Union of Myanmar and conceding on earlier demands as secessionism or territorial independence.

The composition of the electoral system severely limits the representation of the ethnic minorities’ interests. The Tatmadaw, armed forces of Myanmar still holds the key to three vital ministries -- defense, border affairs, interior. They also possess a fixed 25% share of parliament seats.

As such, the military will always have the unspoken powers to veto constitutional amendments because they control 75% of parliamentary powers.

This severely limits the participation of minorities within the political arena. The unitarist constitution of 2008 poses a substantial disadvantage for ethnic minorities.

For genuine progress, the government and the military now need bold action in the pursuit of federalism to finally take on the constitution. Their will to do so could in turn prompt confidence from the ethnic minorities into the actions of the government. This could help overcome the lack of mutual trust and pave the way for serious negotiations.
How specifically does it curb minority participation?

The 2008 constitution recognises seven administrative divisions for the ethnic minorities as well as seven for the Bamar-majority.
In the Amyotha Hluttaw – Upper House of Myanmar - each division can directly elect a maximum of 12 seats. Assuming that ethnicities vote in line with their national party, all of the 12 assigned seats are likely to go to their national representatives. Apart from the equal seats (84) designated to Bamar and the ethnic minorities, there are 56 mandates decided by the military. Since the military is highly Bamar-dominated the alignment with the Bamar side is self-evident . Consequently, the ethnic minorities are outvoted in the crucial second chamber.

A closer look must also be given to the Pyithu Hluttaw, the first chamber of Myanmar.

Under the 2008 constitution, 25% of seats are automatically given to the military and the remaining seats are then to be elected in the townships. Myanmar specifically uses the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which implies that the candidate with the highest number of votes in a given constituency wins the seat.

In other words, this refers to the relative majority electoral system. In principle, the dominant ethnicity in the townships will then send a representative to the parliament. In the case of Myanmar, the most popular vote often goes to the Bamar-majority.

The political system of Myanmar makes it difficult for the ethnic minorities to have an impact on political decision-making in both chambers. Therefore, minorities in Myanmar are under-represented, outvoted on important issues and lack the institutional means to defend their ethnic autonomy in their respective states.

Prospect of amending the constitution.

Considering the decade-long deep cleavages, it is unlikely that either side will compromise. The military’s greatest concern as gatekeepers, is often rather what could be lost instead of what could be gained through a federal and inclusive system.

For the Bamar, a concession would be met with heavy resistance as they are certainly unwilling to give up power or to even change the status-quo that is preserved through the 2008 constitution. And that remains one of the few underlying problems.

It is crucial now to continue the UPC in the ‘spirit of Panglong’ to have a regular setting where the different stakeholders can come together, negotiate and find solutions for a viable peace agreement. A starting point would be to amend the constitution. In particular, the move from a quasi-federal state-structure into a genuine federation is now key and much required. This could potentially be a tool for conflict resolution.