By Min Htee
Countries are shaped by their political systems and governments. Around the world today, most countries view democracy as a good political system. Many countries shifted to democracy following World War II. Federalism is often exercised alongside democracy in ethnically diverse countries to ensure equity and representation, as well as promote a degree of decentralised governance.
In enacting a political system, a constitution is the lifeblood of a country, it being a contract between the government and its people for sharing responsibility as well as enshrining reciprocal accountability. If a country is to truly practice democracy, its constitution must meet democratic norms. Though admittedly every political system has its weaknesses, if a given country’s leaders themselves are rejecting fundamental democratic principles, and if the constitution itself deviates from democratic norms, it can lead to political instability and lost faith in the system.
The history of the world is largely a history of wars and bloodshed. Conflicts have resulted from differences of color, creed and culture. Many continue to this day, and their governments seem to be doing little to stop those conflicts.
“So long as there are men, there will be wars,” a saying attributed to Albert Einstein, still rings true.
Historians have said that the two world wars erupted in large part due to four factors: militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism.
Colonialism is the policy of a country seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories, and attendant suppression and exploitation of colonised people. Countries colonise others by various means including waging wars, trading, and interfering in the internal affairs of the targeted countries, including the introduction of the colonisers’ religions. Countries such as Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal have exercised colonialism in Asia, South America, Africa and elsewhere in Europe.
In the process of colonisation, colonisers oppress indigenous peoples in ways politically, economically, racially and religiously. They often enslave indigenous people, confiscate their lands and restrict their religions while benefiting from the colonised regions’ resources. Indigenous peoples have been consistently deprived of their rights. The colonial system is characterised by repression, leaving ordinary citizens of the colonised regions with psychological trauma. As such, the global majority of countries fought against colonialism, but in many cases it can be seen that the essence of colonialism exists in many nations’ administrative machinery up to now.
Although the nations that colonised may have withdrawn, it can be said that colonialism is still deeply rooted in the victim countries. It can be seen that these countries with devilish legacies of colonialism are practising some of the same behaviours that they condemned in their former colonial overlords, such as unequal political rights among ethnic groups and refusing to recognise the cultures and traditions of minorities.
There remains discrimination on the basis of religion and/or race in most countries, including many countries that cry nominal democracy aloud and claim to espouse a political credo centred on individual rights.
Myanmar regained her independence from the British colonialists in 1948, with the new nation forged on the promise of the 1947 Panglong Agreement. To this day, there remain various ethnicities and “isms” in Myanmar, as well as diverse geographical conditions, traditions and religions. As successive Myanmar governments failed to practise the Panglong principles that were agreed in 1947, it can be said that armed struggle as its own kind of credo was born together with the independence of Myanmar.
The Bamar majority have always been viewed with suspicion by many Kachin, Shan, Chin and Karenni who had joined hands with the majority in the independence struggle. In the British colonial era, Arakan State became a rice granary. As direct flights were operated between Britain and the Arakan State capital Sittwe (formerly known as Akyab), the state was well-known as a tourist destination. Arakan State saw economic development in the colonial era, as factories and agriculture, including the pearl and rice industries, and the fisheries sector, were systematically established.
Unlike the largely impoverished Arakan State of today, then Burma’s western coastal region was an economic engine under British rule.
After regaining independence, the 1947 Constitution did not stipulate provisions for Arakan as a state in Burma. In ruling Burma and later Myanmar, successive political leaders have refused to recognise the Panglong principles, severely hobbling prospects for unity and causing internal armed conflicts. After General Ne Win seized power in 1962, this took place under military rule for the next several decades.
Successive governments in Myanmar have refused to act in political good faith with ethnic minorities, denying them equal rights and self-determination, and the country continues to face civil war as a result. In states such as Arakan, the exploitation of natural resources has gone hand in hand with the authoritarian behaviour perpetrated against ethnic groups.
The dream of building a federal union that guarantees equal rights and self-determination continues to be a dream and not yet reality for the people of Myanmar’s ethnic states. Citizens who have been deprived and impoverished have lost faith in the promise of Panglong, increasingly turning to ethnic nationalism at the expense of a cohesive national identity.
Governing under many laws drawn up and enacted during colonial rule, there is often a lingering colonial ideology that cannot bring any good for the country. The 2008 Constitution, which is ostensibly based on multi-party democracy, also denies equal rights for ethnic minorities in practical terms, and significantly centralises power.
As long as colonial mentalities persist in Myanmar’s halls of power, gunfire — not equality nor prosperity — will predominate.