DO PEOPLE REALLY WANT
FINDINGS FROM DELIBERATIVE
SURVEYS ON THE ROLE OF ETHNIC
IDENTITY IN FEDERALISM IN
Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
Since independence in 1948, Myanmar (then Burma) has grappled with
the idea and implementation of federalism. It remains the major demand
of the non-dominant ethnic nationalities but has been resisted by many
of the majority Bamar community (especially the military and other
political elites) despite promises to the contrary. The 1947 Panglong
Agreement, which was a precursor to independence, enshrined the idea
of “ethnofederalism”. That is, provinces (states, regions, divisions) that
recognise and institutionalise the rights of ethnic nationalities to their
traditional homelands and resources, to use their own languages in ocial
business and education, and to self-determination.
But much has changed since 1947. For one, various governments
have pursued a Bamar-based nation-building agenda, which included
ocial status for the Burmese (and not minority) language and special
status for the Buddhist religion. There has been signicant migration
and intermingling of dierent ethnic communities in many parts of the
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62 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
country. Democracy is (arguably) in its third incarnation, with the National
League for Democracy (NLD) winning the 2015 election and establishing a
constitutional reform process, under the guise of the 21st Century Panglong
Conference, with the objective of establishing a “genuine federal union”.
However, its progress has stalled, in large part because of (the military’s)
concerns relating to secession.
The secession risk associated with federalism is a long-standing issue.
Paradoxically, federalism indeed can help to prevent secession, while at
the same time making it more likely. This is particularly the case with
ethnofederalism, the approach favoured by Myanmar’s ethnic leaders.
The paradox plays into a more general debate about the relative merits
of ethnofederalism, where state/provinces are based on ethnicity and
language, and territorial federalism (also known as regional federalism),
where states/provinces are based on economy, resources, infrastructure,
We implemented a series of experimental deliberative surveys to engage
with these debates on the ground, to contribute to feeding a deliberative
perspective into the current constitutional reform process, and to rene
deliberative democratic methodologies for use in deeply divided societies
and constitutional reform processes in Asia. This paper is based on the
results of those deliberative surveys.
The deliberative surveys focused on federalism and were held in Shan
State and Monywa Region in Myanmar in 2018. We engaged participants
(mostly laypersons) from a mix of dierent ethnic groups in information-
sharing and deliberation to reach common understandings of terms, like
ethnofederalism, to deliberate amongst themselves, and to respond to a
before and after survey that asked their opinions on the issues that were
discussed. We asked general questions, like whether Myanmar should have
federalism, and more specic questions like whether the existing (Bamar)
regions should be merged to form one Bamar state.
This paper focuses on those questions that related to ethnofederalism
and the practical implications of the results. It shows that, in contrast to
statements of key ethnic leaders, many participants no longer aspire to
ethnofederalism. Participants in our forums wanted to retain their ethnic
identity and to have it recognised, but ethnofederalism was no longer the
main objective. Surprisingly, a form of territorial or regional federalism was
preferred by most participants, and increasingly so following deliberations
about what kind of arrangements they might imply. Many concluded
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 63
that ethnic identity should be recognised but not institutionalised as a
basis for federal arrangements. Just as much as participants did not want
to engage with Bamar-centric institutions, merely replacing them with
another ethno-centric set of institutions was also seen as problematic. This
perspective was particularly strong among those that did not identify
with one of the seven major non-Bamar ethnic nationalities.1 Participants
recognised that an ethnofederal structure left many small ethnic groups
even more marginalised. Providing autonomy to all on a group basis was
considered impractical and risky. In conclusion, the paper argues that to
take Myanmar’s federalism further, a territorially focused restructuring
of the states and regions would take beer account of contemporary
laypersons’ views and help to mitigate the secession risk, thereby enabling
states and regions to be more empowered through constitutional change. In
doing so, the paper contributes to the political science literature on how to
design federalism for divided societies and to manage a secession risk, and
oers a methodology and perspective that can be applied to constitutional
selement and conict resolution processes in Myanmar and elsewhere.
Federal institutions in Myanmar have historically been ethnically focused.
However, this has not always been with the objective of allowing ethnic
autonomy, rather of neutralising it and furthering an assimilationist or
integrationist agenda. The 1947 constitution incorporated ve asymmetrical
constituent units – three ethnic states, two of which had a secession right,
and two ethnic divisions with mostly administrative power (see Breen
2019). Most of these had half or all of the parliamentary seats in their
state assured for their ethnic group, and important powers allocated
to them in the constitution. But implementation and the structure itself
were inadequate. Some groups received no special structures, while other
groups were dissatised with those that they did receive. Conict started
at independence and continued to grow, until the military seized power
and suspended the constitution, declaring that “federalism is impossible,
it will destroy the union” (cited in Smith 1991, 196). After twelve years of
running the country without a constitution, a quasi-federal state structure
was re-established in 1974. This time, there were no special rights for ethnic
groups in states and divisions (Breen 2019). And, there were now seven
ethnic states and seven divisions, the laer of which were understood
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64 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
by some to be representative of the Bamar (see for example Weng 2016;
Sakhong 2010; Myanmar News Agency 2016b).
Ethnic identity was recognised, by state boundaries and names, but
there was no accompanying institutionalisation of those rights. Over the
coming years, the central state implemented an assimilationist nation-
building agenda and controlled the ethnic states. For example, the ocial
education system operated in Burmese, the ethnic states were led by
appointees of the central state party, Buddhism was intertwined with
the governance of the state and civil servants were sta of the military-
controlled central department (Breen 2018c, 92–102; South and Lall 2016;
Smith 1991; Sakhong 2005). Conict continued in the ethnic states and
many ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) held considerable power in the
areas that they controlled. They established institutions, like schools and
political wings, and in some cases ran quasi-parallel governments (Callahan
2007; Breen 2018c, 99). Some expect these institutions to be legitimised
through the development of an ethnofederal structure.
The 2008 Constitution re-established the fourteen states and divisions
(now regions) and introduced new institutions like an upper house of
parliament and a multiparty system. The states and divisions remained
symmetrical, but six ethnically based self-administered areas were
added, along with national race aairs ministries,2 which operated on
a non-territorial basis. The special place of Buddhism and the Burmese
language-focused education system remained. Conict abated in many
areas as the military and the then government sought to negotiate a national
ceasere agreement and took steps towards institutionalising democratic
practices. But in other areas (notably Shan and Kachin states), conict
restarted, while the Rohingya Muslim-focused atrocities of 2017 forced a
mass exodus of that group into neighbouring Bangladesh and elsewhere.
These conicts have signicantly eroded trust between the military and
EAOs and contributed to the current stalemate. Further, the new National
League for Democracy (NLD) government has been accused of simply
continuing the Bamar nation-building agenda, and ignoring the priorities
of ethnic nationality communities (Aung Aung 2018).
Figure 1 shows an approximation of the distribution of major ethnic
nationalities, and the state and region boundaries, according to the 2008
Constitution. An overlap between the boundaries and the dierent ethnic
nationalities is apparent, as is the near impossibility of the federal structure
neatly capturing the breadth and complexity of this diversity. But in any
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 65
Figure 1: Map of states and regions in Myanmar, overlaid on an approximation of the ethnic
distribution of major ethnic nationalities. Source: Ethnic distribution based on data from Smith 1991
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66 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
case, the map shows estimates only, each area is not homogenous and
there has been signicant population growth and internal migration since
1947 when the initial ethnically focused federal arrangements were agreed.
The 2014 census collected data on the distribution of dierent ethnic
nationalities, but that data has not been released (see Ye Mon and Pyae
Thet Phyo 2016). Estimates of ethnic populations remain just that and
there is very lile reliable data on distribution and how it has changed
since 1947. Notwithstanding, the 1983 census did collect data on the ethnic
distribution of groups within the states and divisions (as existent under
the 1974 constitution). It showed that ve of the seven ethnic states had a
majority of the named ethnic nationality (two of which were well under
60 per cent of the population) and the remaining two had a plurality of
the named ethnic group (Ministry of Home and Regional Aairs 1987,
Tables 6 for each state and division).
Since that time, there has been substantial internal migration. Based
on the most recent census (2014), around 20 per cent of the population are
internal migrants (Department of Population 2016). The UN reports that
four states or regions have a net in-migration, three of which are ethnic
states (Shan, Kachin and Chin), and that internal migration is primarily
motivated by economic opportunity (World Bank Myanmar 2016, 6). In-
migration to ethnic states is often perceived to be part of a deliberate policy
of “Burmanisation”. Further, as at the end of 2018, over 400,000 people
remained internally displaced as a result of conict (Internal Displacement
Monitoring Centre 2019).
Yet ethnic leaders still agitate for federalism based on ethnicity, to the
extent that the current constitutional reform process, specically the 21st
Century Panglong Conference, has seen debates punctuated by demands
for new ethnic states, new self-administered areas and the merging of the
seven (nominally Bamar) regions to form one Bamar state (Myanmar News
Agency 2016a, b). Many of these demands are still based on promises of
the Panglong Agreement, rather than contemporary reality. Khun Marko
Ban, from the Karenni National Progressive Party, for example, argued
that “the eight states principle is a basic principle, because it stemmed
from the essence of the 1947 Panglong Agreement” (cited in Nyein 2016).
These demands hark back to the Panglong Agreement, Aung San’s oft-
repeated promise of ethnic equality such that “if Burma gets one Kyat [unit
of currency], then you [the ethnic nationalities] will get one Kyat” (cited
in Walton 2008, 897). But there is no shared vision of what a Panglong-
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 67
based ethnofederal structure would actually look like. How many groups
should get states? Should there be one Bamar state or more? Should states,
or ethnic nationalities, have the right to secede?
Demands for federalism are also based on the self-determination
principle. Prominent Chin leader and peace negotiator Lian Sakhong
highlights the Bamar-centric nation-building, writing that self-
determination is necessary because the central state has, inter alia, “abused
rights of religious and cultural minority groups” (Sakhong 2005, 10). The Wa
demand the establishment of a Wa state, covering their self-administered
division and ceasere area, which are both currently part of the Shan State.
Practically, they have complete control in these areas and their “leaders
want no part of being ruled by any state-level government emanating
from what now constitutes Shan State” (Callahan 2007, 30). South and
Lall (2016, 2) put the demands for the right to mother-tongue education
“at the heart” of the conict.
Overarching all this is a fear of secession. The fear is present mostly
among the military who continue to associate federalism with secession
despite its renunciation by EAOs. They fear that empowering ethnic
groups will enable them to mount a secessionist movement. Hence, the
21st Century Panglong Conference’s progress has stalled on this issue (see
for example Shan Herald Agency for News 2017). But what if federalism
was not so intertwined with the notion of ethnic identity? It could still
deliver many of the benets aributed to it, which could include an extent
of ethnic autonomy according to naturally clustered communities, without
raising the risks of secession.
DEBATES ON ETHNO AND TERRITORIAL FEDERALISM
Unlike many Western federations, such as the United States and Australia,
Asian countries have needed to take ethnic diversity seriously as they
discuss or implement federal governance structures. The major issue that
runs through academic examination, and the practical consideration of
federalism in Asia, is whether federal institutions should be based on
territorial or ethnic factors. Critics of ethnic approaches (ethnofederalism)
cite “a substantial body of evidence warning against this” (Roeder 2009,
295). However, practitioners continue to recommend ethnofederalism as
a response to ethnic conict, because in many cases there are no plausible
alternatives (Anderson 2014).
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68 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
The chief criticism of ethnofederalism is that it might lead to the break-
up of a country – secession or disintegration. If an ethnic group has its own
institutions, it is more likely to be able to secure and develop the resources
and basis from which mount a successful secessionist movement (Brown
2007, Roeder 2009). And, they may be more likely to. “Institutionalizing and
promoting the separate identity of a titular group increases that group’s
cohesion and willingness to act” (Cornell 2002, 225). Others argue that
ethnofederalism leads to more discrimination, more isolation and distrust,
and less intercultural understanding (Bunce and Was 2005).
But of course, it is never so simple. If ethnic groups are ghting for self-
determination, then states and regions that are based on geography only
and which incorporate only parts of each ethnic group, are not likely to
contribute to a selement agreement. If ethnic groups gain autonomy, they
are less likely to want to secede. Ethnofederalism is regularly promoted as a
way to resolve conict and to facilitate respect for human rights and stable
democratic governance in ethnically divided countries (Anderson 2013,
Ghai 2000, Lawoti 2010, Stepan 1999, Kymlicka 2007). Today, “virtually
all constitutional selements to self-determination conicts” incorporate
some type of ethnic autonomy (Weller and Wol 2005, 232).
According to Anderson (2014), ethnofederalism is the least-worst
institutional arrangement irrespective of its problems, because no other
state structure has been as successful in resolving or reducing conict
in ethnically divided countries. Anderson (2013) shows that its failure
rate has actually been less than that of the alternatives. Further, as Hale
(2004) demonstrated, ethnofederalism is not more likely to collapse (lead
to secession or breakdown) unless there is a “core ethnic region” – one
state or region that has a majority or large proportion of the population.
This was the case in Pakistan (before Bangladesh split o), Yugoslavia,
Czechoslovakia and others, including Burma under the 1947 constitution.
So according to this hypothesis, creating one Bamar state by merging
existing regions is likely to lead to the failure of federalism in Myanmar.
The use of mixed criteria, like in the case of Nepal, seems obvious. Nepal
used identity and viability as the two main criteria to create a kind of hybrid
federalism (Breen 2018a). Using mixed criteria for the establishment of
provinces also means that the provinces are more likely to be substantively
heterogeneous. The presence of a mixture of dierent ethnic groups in a
unit will tend to have a more moderating eect on intergroup politics,
especially if new unit-based majorities that are dierent to those at the
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 69
centre are created, or if they break up a core region (Horowi 2000 ,
613–619; Breen 2018c, 153–158). Heterogeneous units also contribute to
the creation of conditions conducive to democratic deliberation, which
have also been shown to have moderating eects and decrease the risk of
secession or secessionist conict (Breen 2018c, 153–172; 2018a).
On the other hand, a more “territorial federalism” will not meet the
demands of the minority ethnic groups who are agitating for autonomy,
and even less so, when there are ethnically based institutions already in
existence. We know this much from the statements and actions of the leaders
of ethnic parties and EAOs, as well as the academic debates. However,
the citizens’ perspective is missing. The federal enterprise is essentially a
democratic project. It requires state-builders to listen to the voice of people.
DELIBERATIVE SURVEYS ON FEDERALISM IN
Many constitutional reform processes are elite-driven, based on the
power of political parties or militaries, and drafted by legal technocrats
with lile aachment to the realities on the ground (Fishkin 2018; Elster
1998; Wallis 2014). In Myanmar, these problems are compounded by
extreme majoritarianism,3 an eective military veto (Harding 2017), and
the restrictive nature of the constitutional debates (in terms of inclusivity,
formality and agenda-control) (International Crisis Group 2016; Breen
One way to help address these problems is through the development
of a more deliberative democracy (see also Walton 2017). Deliberative
democracy emphasises the force of reason over military, economic or
political power, and aims to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity
to participate in democratic procedures and, in doing so, inuence decision-
making and the exercise of state power (Habermas 1984; Dryzek 2000;
Fishkin 2009). This is especially pertinent when considering constitutional
change (Elster 1998; Fishkin 2018). We experimented with deliberative
surveys as one way to engage the public and determine how to feed a
deliberative perspective into the decision-making process.
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70 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
Context and methodology
One topic of our research design related to the bases of the states and
regions, including whether they should be based on ethnicity or territory.
The results were surprising and telling. This is the focus of this paper.
The deliberative surveys covered other topics, namely national identity
and religion, federalism and the division of powers, most of which are
not addressed here. A separate paper (Breen and He 2020) focuses on
national identity and religion and implications for theories of deliberative
democracy, while a full report is also available (Breen, He, and Win 2018).
Our deliberative surveys were based on the Deliberative Polling® (DP)
methodology created by James Fishkin (2006, 2009). DP uses a before and
after survey in order to ascertain a more genuine public opinion on maers
of policy and public administration. The survey questions are identical,
which enables opinion change to be measured and compared. DP relies
on random selection. Our variation used a more targeted approach to
selection to achieve “discursive representation” (Dryzek 2005), in this
case, that of ethnic identity. We used local civil society organisations
to recruit and ensure a mixture of participants. Participants were to be
reective of the region, rather than the country as a whole. We held three
forums in Shan State (Lashio and Taunggyi) and two in Sagaing Region
(Sagaing and Monywa). Therefore, Shan and Bamar are comparatively
Table 1: Statistical breakdown of participants
Ethnic identity* Bamar Chin Kachin Unspeciﬁed
45 15 10 0
Various Shan Other
12 36 48
Religion Buddhist Christian Muslim Unspeciﬁed
123 39 4 0
Age range 18-29 30-49 50+ Unspeciﬁed
64 47 46 16
Gender Male Female Other Unspeciﬁed
116 49 1 0
Education level Primary High school University Unspeciﬁed
17 56 90 3
*Various refers to Karen, Karenni, Mon & Rakhine. Other refers to small ethnic groups, like Pa-O, Wa etc.
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 71
well represented. The language of deliberation was Bamar. We also paid
a modest honorarium to participants as an incentive to participate and
in recognition of their time and eort. Overall 193 people aended, and
166 people returned both before and after surveys. All statistics provided
relate to the 166 people only. All quotes are verbal translations. Aendance
breakdowns are provided in Table 1. Relevant questions and results are
in Appendix 1.
Before engaging in a deliberation, the participants rst completed
the survey, selecting whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of
statements using a scale of 1 to 5 where 3 is neutral and 5 is strongly agree.
Secondly, participants were provided with an independently reviewed
and balanced brieng package on the issues that would be discussed and
asked to review the package before aending a deliberative forum. At the
forum, the information package was reinforced by a keynote lecture, with
opportunity for questions. Then participants broke into mixed small-group
sessions (“tables”), facilitated by a trained moderator who asked a series
of questions and enforced a set of rules for deliberation. The small groups
provided “report-backs” on the outcomes of their deliberations at the end
of each session, which provided a further opportunity to ask questions and
debate issues. Finally, the participants would complete the same survey.
The average mean of the combined results of each question on the
rst and second survey are compared. Opinion change was measured in
terms of change in mean, and moderation (or convergence of opinion) in
terms of change in standard deviation. An opinion change of 10 per cent
indicates that around half the participants changed their opinions (in kind
or degree). This analysis was also repeated per ethnic group, location,
gender, religion and others. This paper discusses the dierences between
ethnic nationalities (“groups”) and between locations, which are most
relevant in this instance. Regarding the former, the analysis does not discuss
changes in the Karen, Karenni, Mon and Rakhine groups individually as
the number of participants was too low to achieve statistical signicance.
Also, there is an “other” category. Respondents selecting this category
identied with a small ethnic nationality, whether or not it was ocially
categorised as a constituent part of what is dened by the government
as a “national race”. For example, Pa-O, Lahu, Kadu, Sha-ni, Wa and
Jingpo. Three of the ve locations comprised mostly laypersons, while
two comprised a mixture of local elites and laypersons. Local elites were
members of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), political parties and civil
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72 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
The morning session of each forum focused on identity and religion,
and the afternoon session focused on the questions concerning federal
institutional design. Each morning, participants extolled their individual
ethnic identities and the need for their recognition. We expected, as is the
case with the overarching discourse and the thrust of elite negotiations like
the 21st Century Panglong Conference, that participants would then argue
for the institutionalisation of those ethnic identities in the structures of
the states. In other words, we expected (at a minimum non-Bamar) ethnic
nationalities to advocate for ethnic states, more self-administered areas
and the upgrading of existing self-administered areas into states. Simply
put, ethnofederalism. However, this did not occur.
A preference for territorial federalism
When each table reported back on the outcomes of their deliberations
about the bases and boundaries of states and regions, we were surprised.
With few exceptions, tables reported a general consensus that territorial
federalism should be preferred over ethnofederalism. That is, states and
regions should be ethnically mixed (heterogeneous), with the boundaries
being based on criteria like geographical continuity, economic resources and
infrastructure, moreso than ethnicity, language and historical continuity.
The most commonly cited reasons were that: 1) if there are more states
or self-administered areas, then the chances of conict and secession will
increase – the participants’ overarching priority was peace; 2) the creation of
ethnic states and self-administered areas marginalises small minorities and
Bamar minorities living in those states and areas; 3) all states and regions
are ethnically mixed, and so one ethnic nationality should not be privileged
over another; and 4) ethnofederalism is impractical because there are too
many ethnic nationalities to give each a state or self-administered area.
But is it dangerous to contemplate a reorganisation or renaming of the
states and regions? One table concluded that territorially based criteria
are beer than ethnic criteria “but the status quo is best”. However, the
status quo is problematic for many ethnic nationalities, because “some
ethnic nationalities are split across states and they are worried for their
identity.” Further, the states are subordinate to the central government.
The arguments for ethnofederalism were almost entirely based around
the promises of Panglong. Yet the survey results showed that less than half
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 73
of the participants could answer a basic multiple choice question about
the Panglong Agreement before the forum, with most of those believing
that the agreement was signed between all the major ethnic nationalities
(Breen, He, and Win 2018, 18). As Walton (2008) points out, the Panglong
Agreement has become much like the country’s founding myth, yet with
conicting versions. One is the myth of ethnic unity.4
Ultimately, the conclusions reached by the tables and the content of
the deliberations themselves reected a prevailing shift of opinion away
from ethnofederalism. The survey results told a similar story. After the
participants had become more informed and discussed their reasons and
perspectives with each other, they shifted towards preferring territorial
Specically, support for states and regions that are based on ethnicity
dropped by 8 per cent to become neutral (Question 2), while support for
the “opposite” approach, states being based on economic and geographical
criteria, increased by 6 per cent (Question 32) – see Figure 2. These changes
were highly statistically signicant. Before the poll, over 60 per cent of
participants supported ethnic states, yet after it dropped to 43 per cent,
with at least twenty-four persons changing from support to not.
The dierent ethnic groups changed in a consistent way on these
questions, with few exceptions. Support for ethnically based federalism
dropped for every group, except for the Chin. However, Chin participants’
support for territorial-based federalism was also up, so it follows that many
Figure 2: Should states be based on ethnic or territorial criteria (before and after
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74 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
were seeking mixed criteria, which was a point of discussion. Support
for ethnic states was also lower among the Bamar as compared to other
ethnic nationalities. A comparison of each location (forum) showed the
trends to be consistent, with two exceptions. The second forum (Lashio,
comprising mostly laypersons) slightly increased their support for ethnic
states, while the fth (Sagaing, comprising mostly laypersons and Bamar)
was down slightly on support for territorial federalism (it was also down
on support for ethnofederalism).
More ethnic states or self-administered areas
Survey results on the issue of more ethnic states and more self-administered
areas also demonstrate the shift away from ethnofederalism. Support for
statements that all large ethnic nationalities should have an ethnic state,
and that all small ethnic nationalities should have a self-administered
area dropped substantially (14 and 7 per cent respectively) – see Figure
3. These changes were highly statistically signicant at 0.05 condence
level. The number of people who did not agree that there should be more
ethnic states more than doubled from forty-six persons to ninety-six (out of
166). Twenty-four remained neutral (see Appendix 1, Question 4). Slightly
more people ended up agreeing with the idea of more self-administered
Figure 4: Federalism will lead to secession? (before and after survey results)
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 75
areas (as discussed below, it is seen as a trade-o for more territorially
based states), but the average was neutral, and the shift was substantively
towards less support (see Appendix 1, Question 7).
There were no substantive dierences between groups and between
locations on the issue of more ethnic states or self-administered areas with
one exception. The second forum, comprising mostly laypersons in Lashio,
northern Shan State, increased its support for more self-administered
areas. As mentioned, this forum’s participants also went in the opposite
direction on the question of ethnofederalism, but only just. Lashio is quite
close to many active conict zones and if nothing else, these dierences
demonstrate that dierent locations may have dierent priorities and
perspectives. Most particularly, in areas where there has been sustained
conict, the intermingling of dierent ethnic nationalities has been lower,
and the EAOs have maintained and propagated a stronger sense of ethnic
nationalism (South and Lall 2016). However, we did have some participants
from EAOs in other forums and their positions changed in a way that was
consistent with changes in the other participants’ positions.
So, while such deliberations can mask a more substantive disagreement
and variance of opinion, in these cases, the trends remained consistent.
The deliberative survey approach minimises the element of peer pressure
and power relations when recording opinions such that opinion change
can be aributed to the power of reason. The survey results can thus be
considered a more genuine opinion than one communicated verbally or
on their behalf.
Overall, the trends were backed by a greater understanding of the
potential benets of federalism. For example, some participants argued
that democratisation and regional development can be achieved without
a focus on ethnicity. Indeed, some felt that these potentialities would be
more likely to be achieved if federalism were more territorially based.
Federalism can be designed to maximise resource and infrastructure
development opportunities, access to markets and economies of scale.
Merely replacing one set of ethnocentric institutions (at the central level)
with another (at the state level) has the potential to invite further conict.
The eight-state approach
Deliberative approaches have also proven their ability to generate
innovative and compromise solutions. This was put to the test with the
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76 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
vexed question of whether the existing regions should be merged to form
one Bamar state. At almost all tables, the discussion on this question was
lively and occasionally animated.
It was dicult to reach agreement in such a short space of time, as can
be expected, but the deliberations did lead to the development of innovative
potential solutions (even if politically unpalatable at present). During the
report-back session, one participant stood up and said that “if we can’t agree
to merge the regions, then why don’t we split the Shan State – already it
has four military commanders” (meaning that it is already administratively
divided into four areas). This suggestion received a round of applause
from the audience and it is not a suggestion we have heard in any other
venue. It would achieve at least one key objective sought by proponents
of the merger, namely a rebalancing of the upper house of parliament in
favour of ethnic states, while avoiding the creation of a Bamar state, which
was opposed by most. Besides, if nothing else, the deliberative forum
did help people make up their minds. Forty participants were neutral in
the before survey, but after deliberation twenty-one of those formed an
opinion, which was invariably to not support the prospective merger (see
Appendix 1, Question 8).
Just like the elite level debates, secession was an overarching theme. We
had some specic questions on this maer, but the quality of debate was
low. People were somewhat reluctant to discuss the issue directly but
raised it repeatedly. Every other issue, from the boundaries of states and
regions and new self-administered areas, to revenue-sharing and natural
resources, were discussed in terms of how they may make secession more
or less likely.
Most participants did not think federalism would lead to secession
and this position was strengthened by deliberation. We asked whether
participants agreed with the statement that “federalism will lead to
secession”. The level of agreement decreased 6 per cent (around one-third
changed their view) and participants signicantly moderated (see Appendix
1, Question 9 and Figure 4). The change was highly statistically signicant.
In addition to those shifting their support to elsewhere, twenty out of
forty-three people who were neutral in the rst survey later disagreed
with the statement (Appendix 1, Question 9).
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 77
Further, participants’ agreement that with the statement that “most
ethnic nationalities want an independent state” also decreased. This change
was also statistically signicant. There were lile dierences across groups
or locations on these maers. However, the Chin group did slightly increase
its agreement with the idea that federalism would lead to secession, but
on average still disagreed, while the Bamar group was well down in their
belief that ethnic nationalities just want independence. Again, this is a
positive outcome of the deliberations, given that Bamar are traditionally
thought to be most opposed to federalism and more fearful of secession.
The prevailing view was well captured by one participant reporting back
on small-group discussion: “In the past federalism was about secession –
but today it will unite us”. One Bamar participant summed up both the
perspective and eect of such public deliberation:
Before [today] I had thought that federalism meant secession, but now I
know what it is and so we should have it. But it should be territorial because
people are mixed. If we grant more self-administered areas then others will
demand them too. This is problematic. If the people are educated about
federalism, then they will not demand pure ethnic states.
Figure 4: Federalism will lead to secession? (before and after survey results)
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78 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
SECESSION RISK AND ITS MANAGEMENT
In Myanmar, like in other ethnically divided countries, the secession risk
is not just the main reason against federalisation, it is also the main reason
for the establishment of modern federal systems (see Breen 2018b). There
is a well-established paradox of federalism that on the one hand it can
accommodate ethnic diversity, but on the other hand, it can exacerbate
ethnic tension and division (Erk and Anderson 2009). It was in the minds
of the military negotiators, and it was also in the minds of our participants,
as they sought a solution that would not invite more secessionist conict.
Many constitutions prohibit secession or secessionist activities, usually
by declaring a country to be “indivisible” or similar (Novic and Urs 2016).
Only Ethiopia’s includes an explicit right for secession, while a few others
include a process by which a particular province can seek independence.
But a secession risk can be managed in a variety of other often interrelated
A secession risk can be understood as a product of four factors (see
Breen 2018b). For starters, there needs to be some credible demand or
action towards an independent state. Then the risk becomes a maer of
degree. One factor is how homogenous a given area is – that is, does it
house mostly only one ethnic group, and are most of its members within
this area. Secondly, do the groups or institutions have the power of arms,
or can the central government simply send in the troops. And thirdly, is
there any international support or sympathy, especially by neighbours, to
the claims for an independent state. If all these factors exist at once, the
risk is too high and federalism is likely to be strongly resisted by central
authorities. In Myanmar, there are now few credible calls for independence,
and the international support for independence or armed insurgencies
has mostly lapsed. Theoretically, the secession risk is now not too high
to prevent federalisation. But still the fear persists.
If homogeneity in a federal state or region is a secession risk factor,
then one way to reduce secession risk is to create more heterogeneous
states and regions (Breen 2018b). It is an unfortunate truth that in some
countries, mass migration programs have been implemented by the central
state to reduce homogeneity and thereby pressure for secession. But a
more benign approach is viable. It is also true that when an ethnic group
is ghting for self-determination, an ethnically mixed state or region
is hardly going to provide the type of autonomy that is being sought.
However, there is a trade-o.
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 79
When states and regions are homogenous, central authorities may
tend to limit the extent of powers available to them, so that they cannot
accumulate the resources to underpin secession. This applies especially
to scal powers and coercive powers. For example, even though the 1987
amendments to the constitution in Sri Lanka aorded its provinces law
and order powers, they were never devolved as it was deemed too risky.
Conversely, in Nepal, ethnic autonomy was given eect by drawing
provincial boundaries such that each included at least two major ethnic
groups. Although some remained unsatised, it meant that in practice, the
provinces could have strong powers without raising the risk of secession.
Arguably, there is far greater ethnic autonomy in the mixed provinces of
Nepal, than in the homogenous provinces of Sri Lanka (see Breen 2018c,
A further strategy to reduce secession risk is to empower a third (local)
tier of government, which is increasingly referred to as the hourglass
model (Shah 2012). In this way autonomy can be both more targeted and
more relevant to small groups, while the presence of a third tier acts as
an additional guard against any independence plans by a state or region.
Traditionally, federal theory would have it that interdependence –
or shared rule – will act to prevent secession. A strong upper house of
parliament that represents states and regions is one such institution for
this. But such houses tend to represent the interests of political parties
more so than states and regions. In practice, political parties have a much
more integral role in creating interdependence (see Riker 1964, Breen
Political party engineering has been used in several “deeply divided
societies” in Asia and Africa to ensure the development of strong integrative
multiethnic parties (Reilly 2001). Indonesia banned regional and ethnic
parties (with a couple of exceptions). Nepal recognised the value of small
regional and ethnic parties, while at the same time forcing the major
parties to put up inclusive candidate lists resulting in more multiethnic
parties and policies (see Breen 2018a). In Myanmar, the place of ethnic
parties is not likely to be diminished, and nor should it be. However, the
major parties should not be explicit or proxy Bamar parties – they should
be multiethnic. This would mean both including and representing the
interests of dierent ethnic nationalities.
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80 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
The question of federalism has been the major issue preventing the
establishment and consolidation of democracy in Myanmar since
independence. It has always been envisaged that federalism would be
ethnic in nature (ethnofederalism), incorporating states and regions that
would provide autonomy and self-determination for ethnic nationalities
on the basis of historical entitlement. However, the central state and the
military in particular, have been resistant to the idea, and have instead
promulgated a Bamar-centric nation-building agenda. This has served
to accentuate the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities’ discontent, to increase
conict and imperil democratisation.
Since the election of the NLD in 2015, a constitutional reform process,
under the guise of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, has been in
place, with a goal of reaching a genuine federal system. This conference has
been punctuated by demands for more ethnofederalism but has reached
a deadlock over the issue of secession. The concerns about the potential
for secession arising from ethnofederalism is a common debate in political
science. We sought to nd out what everyday people in Myanmar think.
We discussed and surveyed these issues with a selection of laypersons,
and some local elites, in order to ascertain a more genuine public opinion
on federalism. We were surprised to nd that despite the prominence given
to the recognition of ethnic identity in deliberations, most participants did
not want further ethnicisation of the federal system, and in fact, preferred
states and regions that are based on territorial (geographic, economic etc.)
criteria, rather than ethnic criteria. Overarching this was their concern
about the potential for more conict – and secession.
So, while the perspectives of elites (as per the 21st Century Panglong
Conference) and laypersons seem to dier on the issue of ethnofederalism,
there is a shared concern about conict and secession. The results of the
deliberative survey (notwithstanding its shortcomings) suggest that the
people (and perhaps the military) would be less concerned about, and more
supportive of, federalism if it were designed in a way that decreased the
potential or risk of secession (and at the same time increased the potential
for economic development and democratisation).
Regardless of whether or not the constitution bans secession, the risk
will remain. So, it should be managed. If the names and boundaries of
states and regions were refocused to emphasise territorial rather than ethnic
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Do People Really Want Ethnofederalism Any More? 81
factors, and the states and regions became more ethnically mixed, then it
may become more politically palatable for the powers of those states and
regions to be enhanced. It is counter-intuitive, but such an approach may
increase the extent of ethnic autonomy, as although an ethnic group may not
form a majority in a distinct state or region, it will (ideally) reach a critical
mass where it can have a strong voice and wield important democratic
powers. This can be supplemented by autonomy at the local level (a third
tier of constitutional government) and non-territorial rights (such as those
encapsulated by the national race aairs ministries currently in place),
while political parties should continue to play a role in both representing
minority interests and bridging dierences between groups. It is not so
much a question of whether an ethnic minority is empowered as it is a
question of whether the hegemony of the dominant group is broken.
The authors are grateful for the collaboration of Dr Khin Zaw Win and
the Tampadipa Institute in designing and implementing the deliberative
forums, along with the Heartland Foundation, Kanbawza Youth Library,
Tukhamein Education Institute and Yone Kyi Yar. We also thank the
University of Mandalay and the student volunteers who worked with us
in various critical roles. We acknowledge the funding from the University
of Melbourne, Norwegian People’s Aid and Deakin University, and advice
from International IDEA and the Forum of Federations.
1 For example, those identifying as Jingpho, Lahu, Sha-ni, Kadu and Palaung.
2 Also known as ethnic aairs ministries.
3 In 2010, the USDP won 80 per cent of the contested seats in the lower house,
and in 2015, the NLD won 77%.
4 Representatives from three ethnic nationalities (Chin, Kachin and Shan), plus
Aung San, signed the agreement.
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82 Michael G. Breen and Baogang He
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