The National Unity Consultative Council has built on earlier models to map out a vision for Myanmar’s federal future. A key challenge would be to gain the trust of ethnic armed groups and political parties towards Bamar-dominated processes.
On 1 January 2022, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM) carried a new year’s message from military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. He emphasised the ‘restoration of peace’ in 2022, observing that 12 February would mark the 75th anniversary of the country’s Union Day (when a Bamar independence leader reached agreement with ethnic leaders for the country’s federal future). The Senior General invited ‘all stakeholders and organisations to join the peace talks’. The GNLM’s 3 January edition repeated the quote.
The general’s call will not find many takers or believers. The Myanmar military’s power grab on 1 February 2021 unleashed a new force of resistance, catalysing a more inclusive envisioning of the country’s political future. For the first time in decades, the Bamar majority in Myanmar’s ‘heartland’ areas are calling for a federal union and an end to the repeating cycles of military rule.
In the past, various ethnic nationality groups in Myanmar voiced these calls; ethnic-dominant states and regions have been the battleground of various clashes between different ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and the Myanmar military over the past seven decades. Communities in the areas around the Irrawaddy basin were largely spared such strife. Widespread resistance to the military junta that deposed the National League for Democracy (NLD) on 1 February, however, saw military brutality spread into these areas. This awakened the Bamar-majority communities to greater awareness of atrocities and injustices against ethnic groups and communities.
The fact that the ethnic armed groups and the Bamar-majority are starting to see eye-to-eye on the country’s federal future in their challenge of military rule is historic. A broad-based, inclusive platform with a specific aim of bringing together different forces around the federal democracy objective has emerged in the form of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). The NUCC’s members include the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw currently serving as the interim legislature (and largely comprising NLD members), the interim National Unity Government (NUG) as the executive, EAOs and ethnic political parties. The NUCC also includes Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) groups, general strike councils, and civil society organisations.
The NUCC’s diverse membership is different from — even while building on — past efforts for federalism, in several respects. The NUCC’s ‘federal democratic union’ aspiration emphasises ‘federalism’ as the first priority. This differs from the NLD’s ‘democratic federal union’ vision, which emphasises ‘democracy’. The NUCC’s emergence also signals a more inclusive and consensus-based approach to dialogue and consultations among democratic forces. No single entity or individual leads the NUCC. At its public launch on 16 November, NUCC representatives confirmed that the body would reach decisions by consensus among the NUCC’s 28 participant organisations, and that it would uphold ‘collective leadership’. Paradoxically, Min Aung Hlaing’s Union Day reference can only bring back memories of broken trust, and reinforce the determination among the anti-junta movement to complete the unfinished federal vision.
The holy grail of a federal union is decades old. In February 1947, the year before then Burma gained independence from British colonial rule, independence hero Aung San, representing the Interim Burmese Government, reached an agreement with Kachin, Chin and Shan ethnic leaders at Panglong in Shan State on a future federal union. This included autonomy for the ethnic areas, particularly those that the British had administered separately as ‘Frontier Areas’. The 1947 Panglong Agreement, and a draft constitution prepared by Aung San’s party, provided the foundation for further discussions. However, Aung San’s assassination in July 1947 disrupted those discussions, and dissatisfaction over elements of the 1947 constitution caused ethnic separatist movements.
The NUCC’s most significant aspect is its potential to incorporate EAOs and ethnic political parties rejecting military rule. This may also be the NUCC’s most important challenge in realising the federal vision.
The NUCC began with a consultative charter drafting process. The Federal Democracy Charter released on 31 March reflects the shared view of those resisting military rule, for democracy under a federal system. Under this charter, the NUCC is the platform to discuss issues related to state/region governance, security and defence arrangements, and prepare for convening a biannual People’s Congress to develop a new constitution to replace the military-drafted 2008 constitution.
The NUCC’s most significant aspect is its potential to incorporate EAOs and ethnic political parties rejecting military rule. This may also be the NUCC’s most important challenge in realising the federal vision. The NUCC has reached out to various EAOs whose buy-in is crucial for tipping the power balance in favor of or against the anti-junta movement. For example, the Karen National Union (KNU), the Kachin Independence Army, and the Arakan Army, have significant control over large areas in ethnic states. But the two latter are not yet part of the NUCC, even though they are engaged in clashes with the military. Other EAOs, including signatories to the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, have remained largely silent. To date, eight EAOs are on board with the NUCC in various capacities. Three have disclosed their names: the KNU, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Chin National Front (CNF). NUCC members also include five ethnic-based consultative councils — representing the Kachin, Chin, Karenni, Mon, and Taang-Palaung peoples. They coordinate interests of different resistance groups, such as EAOs, CDM networks and civil societies, and administrative plans in the respective states.
Sceptism and suspicion still beset the NUCC’s work. Foremost is the lingering distrust of EAOs and ethnic political parties towards Bamar-dominant political processes. A history of past broken promises, fragmented interests, and tensions and disagreements over the direction and management of the various efforts to resist military rule (including formation of a federal army) threaten the NUCC’s potential to cohere and reconcile different interests. The consensus-based approach causes delays in projected activities. Still, the view is that the NUCC is ‘too important to fail’ given its commitment to promote inclusion and equality for a federal democracy free of military dominance. The NUCC’s emergence thus represents a new vision for federalism to which more in Myanmar can subscribe, identify, and contribute. It is a closer representation of the 1947 vision for the country’s federal future than any process designed by the military.
Htet Myet Min Tun is an ASEAN Undergraduate Scholar at Yale-NUS College.
Moe Thuzar is Fellow and Acting Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.