Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Constitutional Process


Robert H Taylor

The plans by the ruling military government of Myanmar, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to convene a constitutional convention on 17 May this year appear to be dependent upon the cooperation of the country’s often truculent minority groups. Factions of many of these groups were in armed revolt against the central government until the 1990s and one of the military’s achievements during its now 16 years in power is that it has brought peace to the country as none of its predecessors had been able to do in the previous 40 years. The regime’s critics, however, dismiss this peace as merely a ruse to divert attention from the issue of democracy. The economic development of the minority regions, though on a modest scale, suggests a more positive interpretation of the results of the ceasefires, including a two-thirds reduction in opium production since 1996 according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The issue of how to integrate Myanmar’s numerous ethnic minorities into the larger polity has dogged every government, democratic or authoritarian, since independence. The complexity of this issue is immense because almost every attempt to satisfy one group raises issues which may antagonise another. Moreover, every attempt by the central government to integrate the remote border regions, where Myanmar’s more than 100 linguistically diverse minorities, composing about 40 per cent of the population reside, is perceived as a real or potential attack on their cultural integrity and political autonomy.

Since 1989, ceasefire agreements have been made and kept with more than 20 former ethnic insurgent armies. They were subsequently encouraged to enter into business, often in joint ventures with government and army controlled firms, and to develop their regions with the assistance of the government. Depending upon the size and asset base of each group's loosely defined territories, their degree of success has been mixed. But for a variety of reasons, no group now appears to want to return to armed conflict with the government. Even the Kayin National Union, one of the oldest insurgent groups in the world, entered into a tacit ceasefire agreement with the government last December.

In preparation for the reconvening in May of a national convention to draft the principles of a new constitution, Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt, the architect of the army’s post-1988 ceasefire strategy, has met with leaders of the ceasefire groups to gain their support for the constitution drafting process. He has promised that they can choose their own delegates to the convention and will have the right to express their desires openly.

By gaining the cooperation of the minorities, the SPDC hopes to obviate the apparent lack of support by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) for the proposed constitutional convention. By creating a ‘coalition of the willing’, the military government hopes to ensure its version of a constitutional future for Myanmar retains the support of its potentially most powerful armed opponents. So far, that strategy appears to be working. Though it will not satisfy Western governments who demand that Suu Kyi be brought into the constitutional process from the beginning, the SPDC will reply, that if the people do not accept the constitutional convention draft, they can reject it in a forthcoming constitutional referendum. But we can assume that the outcome of the referendum will be endorsement of the new constitution. An end game to the 16 years stalemate between the army and the NLD is now underway, and the minorities appear to be the beneficiaries.

WATCHPOINT: The degree of participation by critics of the military government, including the NLD as well as representatives of Myanmar’s numerous minorities, will determine the success of the constitution drafting process as well as its international acceptability. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is expected in advance of the constitutional convention scheduled for 17 May 2004.


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