A STRUGGLE FOR
Ethnic Nationalities Perspective
Lian H. Sakhong
[Note: A speech delivered at “Conference on
you so much for giving me this opportunity to speak about our struggle for
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
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.
believe that the best means to combine and balance between “self-rule” for
ethnic national homelands and a “shared-rule” for the
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
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.
essence of tripartite dialogue is “inclusiveness” and “recognition” which, in
concepts, includes all the major political stakeholders, or conflict parties in
UN resolution also acknowledges the very nature of political crisis in
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
(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.
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
¨ 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
(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.
Law No. 5/96, which was enacted on
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.
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
Dr. Lian H. Sakhong
United Nationalities League for Democracy UNLD-LA), and
Nationalities Council –