Burma is already a federal state: scholars

For ethnic and democratic dissidents who have been fighting for the emergency of a federal democracy, Burma has been one since last year when the military drawn 2008 constitution came into force, according to scholars attending a meeting in Chiangmai last week.

“The 2008 (constitution) is technically a federal constitution,” said one of the academics who wish to be unidentified for the time being. “Now that you have your own state governments and state legislatures.”

“Their powers however,” one added “are very limited.”

A cursory look at the union and state/regional legislative lists at the back of the main text will prove their point, according to them:

  • State/region has power over agriculture, but since the Union holds power over economy, it means agriculture, to all intents and purposes, comes under the union
  • State/region has power over cutting and polishing of gemstones, but gems themselves are under the union
  • The only thing not under union legislative list is salt, which has little or no commercial value, and “some states don’t even have salt mines.”

“Schedule II (Region or State Legislative List) therefore is meaningless, because the union has overlapping power in all cases,” said one. “It gives something to the states with one hand and takes it back with the other.”

The fight for a genuine federal union therefore must go on. “One Burman politician has asked me how federalism can serve the Burmans’ interest,” one recalled. “I told him the region where he comes from is screaming for more division of power and revenue. That’s federalism.”

There are 7 states and 7 regions, whose status are equal.

Scholars meanwhile warn federalism does not necessarily mean a weak central government. “While states need to have more power to protect cultural diversity, take advantage of local knowledge, allow speedy action to problems that arise and to check the central government, they also need a strong union government when the job calls for unity and uniformity,” one academic pointed out:

  • For unity: foreign affairs and defense, for example
  • For uniformity: currency and some market rules, for example

Still, scholars agreed that the overriding challenge is for more power-sharing and revenue-sharing for the states. Among their suggestions were:

  • Chief ministers of states/regions to be elected (and not appointed as the present constitution has insisted)
  • National Assembly (Amyotha Hluttaw) representatives to be selected by the states/regions concerned

The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the alliance of 11 armed movements, and other non-UNFC armed movements have called for the amendment of the 2008 constitution “outside the parliament” and not inside the parliament as set by the government.

“It would be perfect timing if necessary amendments could be carried before 2015,” a scholar told his audience. “After all, federalism is not what most of the people believe it is. They fear the country will break up if it goes federal. On the contrary, this country is sure to break up if it refuses to become federal.”


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