April 13, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Without Diversity, There Can Be No Unity

24 November 2011: The recent political developments unfolding in the Union of Burma are positive signs showing that we could possibly see the restoration of democracy and national reconciliation we have long sought for. The NLD – the party of Aung San Suu Kyi – has decided to formally register its party to vie for power; there have been high-level meetings aimed at resolving conflict between Minister Aung Min and leaders of ethnic opposition armed groups; and finally, the U.S. has intensified its diplomatic efforts.

All this is reason for optimism, and yet there are still reasons to be cautious. Burma’s “new” regime is still a semi-authoritarian/quasi-civilian government that has many times demonstrated its capacity for ruthlessness and conniving to maintain the status quo: hegemonic unity without diversity. Time and again, resolutions to Burma’s political conflict have proven to be a futile zero-sum game where the rulers take all. As long as any party in negotiation insists on attaining 100% of what it demands, negotiations will be doomed to failure from the outset. The military government must make concessions prove their sincerity and embrace lasting solutions to Burma’s internal conflict. More than anything, they must recognize that without diversity there can be no unity!

At the moment, leaders need to focus on building trust, finding common ground and negotiating a nationwide ceasefire. But to fulfill Burma’s ultimate destiny, leaders will eventually also have to bear the same understanding of what it means to form a stable union, and we know from history that “stability” and “unity” do not mean “uniformity,” for uniformity only leads to unstable conflict. In the long term, democratic civilian rule will have to take the shape of a federal structure that reflects the diversity of the union, just like the structure of Canada, the United States, or other federations. As I will explain, this does not refer to autonomy, but to self-rule for each constituent member of the union and shared-rule for the common union.

Consider how governments since General Ne Win have conflated “unity” with unrealistic “uniformity.” With brute force, these governments have in reality only achieved conflict. They claim that only the army can maintain the union’s stability and define its three basic responsibilities as (1) non-integration of the Union, (2) non-integration of national unity, and (3) perpetuation of sovereignty.

Their stubbornly dogmatic characterization of the term “unity” is really one of “monolithic uniformity” where they choose to live in fruitless denial about the existence of minorities. Words matter in this context. The term “non-integration” is deceptive because while it sounds like minorities are to be protected, in practice, the term means that all ethnic national minorities will be absorbed into the Burman/Bama ethnicity. This approach has proven futile.  In fact, under this pretext of non-integration of the union, the successive military governments’ assimilationist policy only intensifies armed resistance and leads to further mistrust.

After all, the Union of Burma is clearly still made up of eight national ethnicities: Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Bama/Burman, and Arakan.  We still speak our languages and celebrate our cultural history.  This will not change. While military leaders tend to view federalism as anathema, it’s based on a false equation of federalism with secession – a falsehood that in fact inspired General Ne Win’s initial military coup federal seminar.[1]  It’s sad to think that this misconception that has led to the death of thousands and the denial of basic rights to millions.

Since ethnic national minorities have been subjugated for so long, the only way to restore trust and preserve it institutionally is to adopt a federal system. Ethno-cultural identification has only strengthened under Ne Win, to the point where identifying oneself as Chin, Shan, Karen, or Kachin now comes before identifying as a Burmese citizen. I’m not alone in my thinking. As Political Scientists McGarry, O’Leary, and Simeon argue, “accommodation is necessary when groups exist powerful enough to resist assimilation but not strong or united enough to achieve secession.”[2] Moreover, Arend Lijphart argues that public recognition of this fact through a constitutional arrangement is a pre-requisite to lasting peace.

A lack of constitutional recognition could again result in discrimination and exclusion, forced assimilation, civil war, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide.[3] Though no political system is perfect as institutional design, out of the systems that we have, constitutional federalism that ensures both elements of self-rule for a federating units and shared rule for the federation government – Union government – is the most viable system practically applicable to a multi-ethnic country like Burma, divided and plural. Moreover, it reduces conflict and increases stability: the very goals of the current government. Yash Ghai argues that “self-rule is a tool of conflict reduction because it promotes integration, not disintegration; it provides a basis for interaction between the region and the centre that is satisfactory to both. Autonomy should be chosen not because of some notion of preserving sovereignty but in order to enable different groups to live together, to define a common public space.”[4]

Despite their long national grievances, none of the ethnic groups today call for secession. All are committed to preserving the common Union of Burma and actively nurturing harmony. The semi-authoritarian regime must now acknowledge the failures and damages of assimilation and brute force. They must redefine a new set of national responsibilities that embraces the principle of unity in diversity.


By Salai Za Ceu Lian

The author is the Commentary Editor at Chinland Guardian. He holds a Master degree in Political Science from the University of Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at [email protected]
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[1] Joself Silverstein, Burma: military rule and the politics of stagnation, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 29.
[2] Sujit Choudhry. Bridging comparative politics and comparative constitutional law: constitutional design in divided societies: Ingegration or Accommodation?.  (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2009),29.
[3] Choudhry, Sujit, “Constitutionalism in a divided society,” International Journal of Constitutional Law (October, 2007) :573- 575.
[4] Yash Ghai, Autonomy as a Strategy for Diffusing Conflict, in P.C. Stern and D. Druckman (eds), International Conflict Resolution after the Cold War. (Washington, D.C: National Academy Press), 483.

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