Ethnic Nationalities Perspective

By Lian H. Sakhong¨

[Note: A speech delivered at “Conference on Indo-Burma Relation”, India International Centre on September 16-17, 2004.]

Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to speak about our struggle for self-determination in Burma. The concept of self-determination, as we all know, is rather a new phenomenon in world history; it came into being only after French Revolution, together with the idea of the “nation” as the whole people, as the object of ultimate political loyalty, and as endowed with an alienable right to self-determination and separate statehood.  When the “League of Nations” was founded after the First World War, the right of self-determination has become an international phenomenon, especially when “minority protection scheme” was formulated on the principle of “national self-determination”, according to which, as Woodrow Wilson put it, “every people have a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live”.

The concept of “self-determination” was a very useful tool for the peoples who tried to free themselves from colonial powers. For them, the right of self-determination was defined mostly in terms of “sovereignty”, “separate statehood” and “independent nation-sate”.

During the cold war, however, both camps of Liberal West and Socialist East put greater emphasis on “territorial integrity” rather than on “national self-determination”. The consensus among the major power was that anti-colonial movement was a particular category of conflict, which provided a potential dilemma and challenge in terms of self-determination. They argued that the goal in the decolonization process was the creation of new states from the territories legally and militarily held by colonial powers. The issue, they argued, was to control over territory within what was, formally speaking, one state.

So, if we looked back the cold war period, it was very obvious that international communities and bodies, including the United Nations, followed the lead given by the two super powers. We can also see that there was relatively little recognition in international law for substantive minority rights, let alone the rights of self-determination. When the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all references to the rights of ethnic minorities were deleted. The hope was that the new emphasis on “human rights” and the principle of non-discrimination would resolve minority conflicts. Rather than protecting vulnerable groups directly, through special rights for the members of particular groups, they argued that cultural and ethnic minorities would be protected indirectly, by guaranteeing basic civil and political rights to all individuals, regardless of group membership.

However, it has become increasingly clear that existing human rights standards are simply unable to resolve some of the most important and controversial questions relating to cultural and ethnic minorities. As Kymlicka argues,

The right to free speech does not tell us what an appropriate language policy is; the right to vote doesn’t tell us how political boundaries should be drawn, or how powers should be distributed between levels of government; the right to mobility doesn’t tell us what an appropriate immigration and naturalization policy is. These questions have been left to the usual process of majoritarian decision-making within each state. The result has been to render cultural [and ethnic] minorities vulnerable to significant injustice at the hands of the majority, and to exacerbate ethno-cultural conflict.

Since the end of the cold war, there has been increasing interest at the international level in supplementing traditional human rights principles with a theory of minority rights and collective rights. For example, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted a declaration on the Rights of National Minorities in 1991, and established a High Commissioner on National Minorities in 1993. The United Nations has debated both a Declaration on Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1993) and a Draft Universal Declaration on Indigenous Rights (1998). In 1992, the Council of Europe adopted a declaration on minority language rights (the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages). This new development, after the collapsed of Soviet Union, is the most encouraging sign for our struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma.  

On the other hands, as the changing world demands, we have to re-define the term “self-determination” accordingly. After Maastricht Treaty in 1992, most scholars tend to define the right of “self-determination” in terms of two categories; “internal self-determination” and “external self-determination”. While “internal self-determination” is concerned mainly with “collective rights” of a group of people(s) within the boundary of modern “nation-state”; “external self-determination” refers to sovereignty, separate statehood and independent nation-state. A combination of the term “internal self-determination” and the meaning of “collective rights” reflect the fact that “collective rights” is not merely cultural, religious, linguistic, and identity rights, etc., it also includes political rights with its full extend of powers, that is., legislative, administrative and judiciary powers.

Against this theoretical background, let me argue that what we—ethnic nationalities in Burma— are fighting for is a kind of “internal self-determination”, and we are struggling for our collective rights, including political rights and autonomous status for our respective homelands; and we strongly believe that these are our alienable rights but denied so long by the successive governments of the Union of Burma since independence in 1948. So, let me be very clear that individual rights is not enough for us; we need our collective rights as a people, as an ethnic group, as a nationality who speak different language, who practice different culture, who worship different religion and who also has different historical background and, above all, all of us have territorially clearly defined homelands and nations since time immemorial. And the simple fact is: We want to rule our homeland by ourselves. But we also know that we have to live together with other peoples and other ethnic groups who practice different religions and cultures and speak different languages. So, the challenge here is to find a political and legal system which will allow us to rule our respective homelands by ourselves, and at same time living peacefully together with others.  In other words, this is the question of how we are going to find a political system which can combine and balance between “self-rule” for different ethnic groups and “shared-rule” for all the peoples in the Union of Burma.

We believe that the best means to combine and balance between “self-rule” for ethnic national homelands and a “shared-rule” for the Union is federal system, or Pyi-daung-suu, in Burmese. As we all know, federalism can generally be defined as an approach to government that divides public powers not only horizontally, i.e. separation of powers between legislative, administrative and judiciary; but vertically, i.e. division of powers between two or more levels of government. In other words, federalism is a constitutional device which provides for a secure, i.e. constitutional, division of powers between ‘central’ and ‘states’ authorities in such a way that each is acknowledged to be the supreme authority in specific areas of responsibility. The basic essence of federalism, therefore, is the notion of two or more orders of government combining elements of ‘shared rule’ for some purposes and ‘self-rule’ for the other. As such, federalism is seen as a constitutionally established balance between ‘shared rule’ and ‘self-rule’; ‘shared rule’ through common institutions and ethnic homeland or regional ‘self-rule’ through the governments of the constituent units or states. The federal principles of ‘self-rule’ and ‘shared rule’, on the other hand, is based on the objective of combining unity and diversity, i.e. of accommodating, preserving and promoting distinct identities within a larger political union.

We, therefore, claims that the ultimate goal of our struggle is to establish a genuine Federal Union of Burma, which will guarantee democratic rights for all citizens, political equality for all nationalities and the rights of self-determination for all member states of the Union.  We openly declared that democracy without federalism would not solve the political crisis in Burma, including the civil war, which has already been fought for five long decades. So, let me repeat that for us, the ultimate goal of the democratic movement in present Burma is not only to restore democratic government but to establish a genuine federal union.  In other words, we ethnic nationalities in Burma view the root cause of political crisis in Burma today as a constitutional problem rather than a purely ideological confrontation between democracy and dictatorship.

As part of our preparation for the establishment of a genuine federal union, we—the UNLD-LA and NDF, two of the largest ethnic political alliances—have undertaken state constitutions drafting process since 2001. We view state constitutions drafting process as a long term process, through which we are engaging inter and intra ethnic dialogue; we encourage all ethnic nationalities in Burma to discuss among themselves and with other ethnic groups what their problems are and how they want to solve, empower them to define their own political future in preparing for political structures that they wish to establish, and create conditions to safeguard and promote democratic system and federal union that we all aim to establish. We now have seven states constitution drafting committees for the Arankan, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan. We also have a study group for Burman State Constitution, a group which is preparing for the future Burman State Constitution. All these state constitution committees are working, helping and networking each other through “Supporting Committee for State Constitutions Drafting Process” (SCSC), a committee formed by UNLD-LA and NDF. The SCSC is working closely also with Federal Constitution Drafting Committee, which is formed under the supervision of NCUB.

In order to achieve our ultimate goal of establishing federal union, we are opting for “tripartite dialogue” as our grand strategy. The term “tripartite dialogue” was first used in the 1994 United Nations General Assembly’s resolution, which called for a negotiated settlement through negotiation amongst three parties: the military government known as “State Peace and Development Council” (SPDC), the 1990 election winning party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and ethnic nationalities—who are the founding nations or national groups of the Union.

The essence of tripartite dialogue is “inclusiveness” and “recognition” which, in concepts, includes all the major political stakeholders, or conflict parties in Burma: military junta, democratic forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic nationalities. Moreover, the UN’s tripartite dialogue resolution recognizes the 1990 election results which have been denied by the military government for 14 years, and recognizes the indispensable participation of ethnic nationalities in the political transition and national reconciliation process in Burma.

The UN resolution also acknowledges the very nature of political crisis in Burma which, as mentioned above, is a “constitutional problem” rather than solely an ideological confrontation between democracy and military rule or totalitarianism. It is not a “minority” problem, or even an ethnic problem which some Burman or Myanmar ethnic politicians argue can be solved later, once democracy is established. The question of democracy, military rule and the constitutional arrangement with special reference to the non-Myanmar (non-Burman) ethnic nationalities—comprising close to 40 percent of the total population—are intrinsically intertwined and cannot be solved one without the other. This is the meaning behind the call for a “tripartite dialogue”.

As we adopted a “tripartite dialogue” as our grand strategy, we have undertaken pro-active and constructive actions to bring about a peaceful resolution to the political conflict in Burma through a dialogue process. As part of our preparation for tripartite dialogue, the “Ethnic Nationalities Solidarity and Cooperation Committee” (ENSCC) was formed in 2001, and worked hard to co-ordinate the following non-Burman political groupings:

(i)         Political parties under the leadership of United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD)

(ii)        Armed groups which are members of National Democratic Front (NDF),

(iii)       Armed groups but not members of NDF, such as Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and Shan State Army (SSA-South).

(iv)       Ceasefire groups.

After two years of hard works, the ENSCC now is transformed as a working committee of “Ethnic Nationalities Council” (ENC), which was formed in January 2004, at the 3rd Ethnic Nationalities Conference. The ENC has been entrusted with task of fostering unity and cooperation between all ethnic nationalities forces and promotes peaceful political settlement in Burma through tripartite dialogue. It was also resolved that the ENC would:          

¨      Promote the profile of the Ethnic Nationalities on the international stage.

¨      Coordinate and work for tripartite dialogue.

¨      Reviving the Panglong Spirit, based on the principles of democracy, equality and self-determination.

¨      Build or facilitate unity and cohesion among all ethnic nationalities forces, inside and outside, including promoting and supporting political actions inside.

I must also mention that the “Ethnic Nationalities Council – Union of Burma” is the largest non-Burman ethnic political alliance in Burma, which includes all the political parties under the leadership of UNLD, armed groups which are members of NDF, armed groups but not members of NDF, and some members of CF. The main political objectives of ENC are as follows:

(i)         To end military dictatorship,

(ii)        To establish a genuine democratic federal union,

(iii)       To ensure democracy, human rights and self-determination.

For peace in the country, the flourishing of democracy, the establishment of a federal system, and the speedy and timely emergence of democratic transition, the ENC is determined to launch the “The New Panglong Initiative: Rebuilding the Union of Burma”, initiative consisting of the following points:

(i)                  To hold, at the earliest date, the tripartite dialogue, as called for by the UN resolutions annually since 1994;

(ii)                To form an interim government comprising of representatives, proportionally, of  the SPDC, the NLD and  other political parties, victorious in the 1990 elections, and the ethnic nationalities, based on the agreement arrived at the  tripartite dialogue;

(iii)               The interim government is to convene a legitimate “National Convention”;

(iv)              To form various commissions, with approval of the National Convention, to draft constitutions of the Federal Union and the constituent States;

(v)                To hold national referendum for adoption of the Federal Constitution and to hold referendum in various constituent States for adoption of respective State Constitutions;

(vi)              To hold elections at national level and state level for the formation of Federal government and State governments in various States in accordance with the newly adopted Federal and respective State Constitutions;

(vii)             Subsequent to the elections, the Federal and State parliaments (legislatures) are to be convened and the respective election-winning parties are to form the Federal and various State governments;

The ENC does not believe that the SPDC’s 7-stages “road map” and its National Convention will lead to democratization and establishment of a federal union. The sole purpose of SPDC’s National Convention is to sustain a military dictatorship and transform itself from De Facto Government to De Jure Government through constitution. The ENC, therefore, issued a statement on 14 May 2004, in support of CF groups’ letter to the SPDC. Part of the statement read as follows:

(i)                 The National Convention procedural rules should be discussed and revised;

(ii)               Objective No. 6 of the National Convention (military role in politics) is not compatible with democracy. It should be discussed and revised;

(iii)             The 104 Articles adopted by the previous National Convention are not compatible with democracy. It should be discussed and revised.

(iv)             Law No. 5/96, which was enacted on 7 June 1996 to protect the 1993-96 National Convention, should be repealed.

The ENC is willing to cooperate and find ways to bring about a transition if above are met. Politics is about making compromises and the ENC is willing to discuss options if the SPDC considers modifying its 7- points Road Map. And, the ENC still believes that the best means to solve our country problem is through a negotiated settlement; and we, therefore, strongly demands a tripartite dialogue as called for by the UNGA since 1994.

In conclusion, I would like to stress again that the right of “self-determination” that we are struggling for is what we call “internal self-determination”: which will guarantees our collective rights; the right to rule our homeland by ourselves, the right to practice our religious teaching and culture freely, the right to teach, learn and promote our language freely, and the right to up-hold our identity without fear and live peacefully together with others. I can assure you that we are not separatists. We are for a united Union of Burma, but what we want is a genuine federal union where all ethnic groups in Burma can live peacefully together.

Thank you!

Dr. Lian H. Sakhong

General Secretary

United Nationalities League for Democracy UNLD-LA), and

Ethnic Nationalities Council – Union of Burma (ENC)



¨  Dr. Lian H. Sakhong is General Secretary of “United Nationalities League for Democracy – Liberated Areas” (UNLD-LA) and of “Ethnic Nationalities Council – Union of Burma” (ENC). He was post-graduate student at History Department in Rangoon University when student-led democracy movement erupted in 1988. He quickly joined the movement and was arrested, interrogated and even tortured by military junta for three separate occasions between 1988 and 1990. He fled from his country in 1990 and resettled in Sweden since 1991. He has published numerous articles on Chin history, traditions and politics in Burma, including his Ph.D. dissertation: Religion and Politics in Burma (Uppsala University, 2000) and his book, In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics and Ethnic Identity in Burma (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2003). He also edited a series of eight books under the title of Peaceful-coexistence: Towards Federal Union of Burma (Chiang Mai: UNLD Press, between 1999 and 2004).

Share it on

Leave a Comment

To protect and promote human rights and democratic principles