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 November 22, 2006   Attempting democracy in ethnically diverse Burma , by Nehginpao Kipgen, General Secretary of US based Kuki International Forum, sent by Kao-Wao Editor   Read Attempting democracy in ethnically diverse Burma

Attempting democracy in ethnically diverse Burma

Subject: Attempting democracy in ethnically diverse Burma: By Nehginpao Kipgen
Date: Wed, 22 Nov 2006 14:04:50 -0700
From: "Kaowao News"
To: "Kaowao News"

Attempting democracy in ethnically diverse Burma

By Nehginpao Kipgen


Burma’s 50 plus years of independence from the colonial yoke of the British has been beleaguered by multitudinous dragging issues – from democracy to ethnocracy - underscoring the need for meritocracy. Succinctly speaking, democracy may be defined as the reigning of peoples’ power directly or indirectly in a given institution; while meritocracy simply means democracy on the basis of merits. These two concepts may not be a great deal of interest to some developed countries, but it is an inherent question for Burma and its people to reckon with. Reeling under the military political web for more than four decades, a large chunk of data and statistics available on Burma are equivocal. The fact that Burma, at present, is a country of seven states and seven divisions is however self-evident.

The two opposing ideologies of the de-facto military regime and their political corrivals in exile are diametrical. The basic principles of constitution drafted at the hiatus National Convention guarantees a decisive role for the military as the ultimate guardian of the state, which advocates of a federal Burma are unlikely to acquiesce. Many ethnic minority groups see the Burmans as one ethnic group and should be accorded one state in line with others. However, the National Convention draws to maintain the status-quo – seven states and seven divisions – the seven divisions are primarily dominated by the Burmans. Divisions, according to the basic constitutional principles, are to be changed to “regions.” In an attempt to pacify the longstanding grievances of minority ethnic groups in states and regions, self-administered areas (zones and divisions) are prescribed: five self-administered zones (one in Sagaing Division and four in Shan State) and one self-administered division (in Shan State). Will this mathematics solve ethno-political problems of Burma?

Democracy and Burma

Abraham Lincoln phrased democracy as “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Democracy has generally been practiced under two systems – parliamentary and presidential. This democratic structure itself can further be manifested in two different forms - direct and indirect or representative democracy. Direct democracy is practicable only in an institution where all members or citizens can present themselves in the making of public decisions. Therefore, it is feasible in a relatively small numbers of populations such as community organizations or other civil societies where decisions are reached with consensus or majority votes of the people. An example of the first direct democracy was seen in the history of ancient Athens where the assembly had electorates numbering five thousand to six thousand. In today’s world politics, the political system of Switzerland is a unique example of direct democracy where citizens of above the age of 18 take part in voting on a wide range of issues including amendment of the constitution. On the other hand, Great Britain, India and the United States of America, among others, can be cited for indirect democracies where representatives are elected.

In the case of Burma, introduction of direct democracy may not even become an issue. Precise statistics may not be available; nevertheless, the population of Burma is estimated to be over 50 million. The idea of parliamentary form of democracy was an impetus for the National League for Democracy (NLD) at the time of attempting to form a parallel government when the then State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) refused to honor the results of nation-wide multi-party general elections in 1990 in which NLD won a landslide victory – winning 392 seats out of the total 485 contested and the military backed National Unity Party (NUP) won 10 seats only. Majority in the military hierarchy and ethnic Burmans may opt for a parliamentary system, but an overwhelmingly majority of other ethnic nationalities are likely to choose federalism. The question here is whether Burma is prepared to have a unitary government with a strong central government or a federation where states enjoy a greater role in the affairs of their own governments.

Meritocracy and Burma

Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia, defines meritocracy as “a system of government based on rule by ability (merit) rather than by wealth or social position. Merit means roughly intelligence plus effort.” The concept of meritocracy is exiguous or has no place in the psychos of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Arbitrary rule in a monopolized way of governance is awry. Skills and merits in the workforce are intrinsically important for a society to grow and thrive. On the contrary, cronyism, favoritism and nepotism dictate the modus operandi of the military bureaucratic structure, which does harm than good for the country and its people.

Failure to encourage meritocracy means that there is a miniature scale of many Burmese skilled workers and intellectuals living abroad will return to their motherland. This will be a brain-drain for Burma as a whole. Although one intends to contribute in the rebuilding of his country, the state is the prime stakeholder in creating conducive and responsive atmosphere for its citizens.

Ethnicity and Burma

Diversity of a country is its beauty to many theorists. The positive consequence of the 1947 Panglong Agreement was paving the way for the unionization of Burma; the adverse side of the story was distrust and the surge of ethnic armed struggles. Burma, predominantly a Buddhist country, is neither an officially pronounced nor decreed theocratic state. Yet, religious restrictions and persecutions are rampant. The country sees very unsubstantial ethnic representation in the chain of command under the successive military twist and turns since 1962. This may roughly be construed as a covert but sinister campaign by the military leaders, and the issue remains a conspicuous solicitude for ethnic minorities. There is no doubt when it comes to the congruity of a democratic struggle, but the implementation process often hangs in the lingering mode.

Voicing for restoration of democracy; the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners are some of the advocacies of the international community. It is beyond this political landscape that the ethnic minority groups want to see – not only duties and responsibilities, but also appropriations and constitutional rights. The idealistic concept of the Union of Burma was initially incepted at the Panglong conference with the notion that there is a room for every ethnic nationality in independent Burma. The signatories of Panglong Agreement evidenced that there was distrust amongst the different ethnic nationalities. The armed revolutionary campaigns in the aftermath of the Panglong Agreement are still unabated in many areas today. The Burmans may form the bulk of population in the country, yet each ethnic nationality remains the prime guardian of their own areas.


It is an encouraging sign that the United Nations Organization has taken more pragmatic steps through the Security Council. The historic placement of Burma at the Security Council’s agenda on September 29, 2006 has tremendous effects both inside and outside Burma. It strengthens the morale of activists and politicians. Now that the democrats are in majority in the Congress, the confirmation of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, the prime architect for pushing Burma’s case at the Security Council’s table, is unlikely to succeed in January. However, U.S. foreign policy toward Burma is not expected to be drifting considerably. Meanwhile, constructive democratization of Burma largely rests on the shoulders of two Asian nuclear rivals - China and India. November 9 to 12 UN undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari visit to Burma was a cue of the world’s highest body continued engagement. Any mediation or intervention for a stabilized and burgeoning democracy in Burma needs to understand the ground reality of Burma’s ethnic diversity. Understanding Burma’s problems together with its multi-ethnic complexity can give the international community a comprehensive strategy. The monopolized mathematics of the SPDC, in its present concept, will not stabilize Burma in the long run.

(Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). The views expressed here are solely the opinion of the author. Kao-Wao Editor)

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