NATIONAL-LEVEL POLITICAL DIALOGUE BEGINS: Forum of Karen, Pa-O nationals and federalism conundrum

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Federalism has been a taboo theme since 1962 when the Military or Tatmadaw staged a coup d’ etat and replaced the democratically elected government of U Nu, until the quasi-civilian government of Thein Sein, following the 2009 nationwide election came to power, under the military-drafted constitution.

The term “federalism” or “federal union” once again after nearly five forbidden decades was allowed to be openly mentioned by the Thein Sein regime, which has since gained currency that has always been the main demand of the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities to resolve the conflict and address their political grievances.

This call for the establishment of a federal union also has been the cornerstone of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) policy, since its opposition days when it was in league with the ethnic political parties, under the rubric of Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP), a main opposition political alliance that had resisted the military dictatorship and seen as a vanguard of the country in those days.

Now once again, the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC), an organ of the NLD regime directing the peace process, recently reiterated it’s position again that federalism is the only way to achieve reconciliation and peace.

On January 19, Union Minister for Office of the State Counselor Kyaw Tint Swe, who is also Vice-Chairman of the NRPC, during the seminar on “Peace Process Orientation Course” told the audience that political problems should be solved through political means and the 21st Century Panglong Conference aimed at fulfilling the long demanded political dialogue of the ethnic nationalities and federal system would be the only suitable and appropriate way to end the decades-old armed conflict. Furthermore, Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong is the only one where negotiation on federalism that accepted the said mentioned issues could be conducted.


Karen national-level conference

In the same vein, the national-level political dialogue conference of the Karen was held  from January 18 to 20, where implementation of federalism was a dominant topic and intensively discussed.

The Hpa-an political dialogue was attended by the three Karen armed groups party to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), as well as five political parties, Karen national representatives from local civil society groups and individuals across the country, numbering some 600 participants.

The participants diversified into discussion groups centered around one of the four topics included under the umbrella of the national-level political dialogues: politics, economics, social issues and land and environmental issues.

At the end of the conference, on January 20,  “Karen National Dialogue Convening Committee” issued a statement, in order that all-inclusive, meaningful, dignified political dialogue to emerge called on all concerned:

  • To widely conduct national-level political discussions according to the national groups, regions and topics with groups and organizations that are entitled to, in places and regions ready for the event;
  • To end the armed conflict with the non-signatory Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and urges the Tatmadaw to open up more space and opportunity for the non-signatories, in order they could speedily sign the NCA;
  • Proposes for the continuation of talks, with reference to the Framework for Political Dialogue, on basic principles concerning national security and other sectors; and
  • Urges all ethnic nationalities, including the Karen people, the government, the Tatmadaw and all those who ought and appropriate to be involved to resolve the political problems through political means, according to the new political culture.


Karen’s idea on federal union

Aside from having a similar basic proposal put forward at the Mai Ja Yang ethnic leadership conference in Kachin State last year, the Karen conference idea of federal system further added up more territorial division for the “sub-national” or “sub-ethnic” groups.

The term, “sub-national” or “sub-ethnic” groups are used here to differentiate the existing ethnic states dominant groups from minorities within each ethnic states and is in no way, aimed at discriminating them but only for clarity sake, in addressing the issue.

Accordingly, a Federal Union composed of national states and nationalities states has been envisioned, where national states would be the current existing states, dominated by one particular ethnic group like Kachin, Shan, Karenni (Kayah), Karen, Mon, Araken and Chin, the nationalities states would be the Regions like Tanintharyi and Ayeyarwady, Sagaing and so on, where various sub-ethnic groups inhabited along side each other.

The Karen national leaders suggested that every significant minority or sub-ethnic group not big enough for their own state could occupy autonomous regions called “national areas”.

The participants at the dialogue forum also discussed and toyed with the idea of forming a “Bamar State” as part of their idealized Federal Union, which many ethnic nationalities considered to be able to establish a genuine federalism, the Bamar needs to have their own state to be on equal-footing with all the ethnic states and not diversified into seven Regions to have political edge in federal-level decision-making.


Pa-O national-level dialogue

Shortly after the Karen, the Pa-O national-level preliminary dialogue conference was also held in Hpa-an on January 22, where some 200 Pa-O people from around the place attended the meeting.

The conference discussed about how its people would like to go about implementing the federalism they envisioned and openly talked about their wish to be categorized as a national state.

Hkun Myint Htoon Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) Chairman said: “Our ultimate aim is the emergence of a Pa-O national state. We, Pa-O has separate symbol (identity) and fully endowed with (characteristics) of a people.”

In its position paper, during the 21st Century Panglong Conference initiated by the NLD, PNLO has made known it’s stand that there should be a provision for the creation of new states to be incorporated into the future constitutional amendments.

Such preliminary conferences have been held in Shan and Mon States for the Pa-O people and would follow up in Bago Region is also said to be in the pipeline.



As could be seen from the Karen and Pa-O national-level conferences deliberations, the further creation of new national states, within the union, and nationalities states are on the agenda of most ethnic nationalities, if the first 21st Century Panglong Conference’s political position papers delivered by  them are to be taken as indications.

While the Wa, Ta’ang, Pa-O and Tai Leng are openly calling for carving out new national states from the existing ones, many more are aspiring for national areas or self-rule.

This is a tall order for any government that has to tackle and accommodate the aspirations of the main seven ethnic groups and their sub-ethnic groups that inhabited within the existing ethnic states, plus the assorted various sub-ethnic groups’ demands  for “national areas”.

Of course, that is not to say that it is impossible, but only has to be done in a well thought-out sequence and correct theoretical underpinnings. As it is impossible to spell out or do brainstorming covering all these issues in this short article, suffice it to say, criterion for the creation of national state and national area should be drawn out together by all the stakeholders that aspire to upgrade their administration status, one way or the other.

For the time being, as has time and again been urged, the most immediate pressing issues are to end the war in the northern part of the country; to carry out all encompassing nationwide ceasefire that would really hold; and to allow all-inclusive and equitable participation of all warring parties, so that the genuine national reconciliation peace process could begin in earnest.