Coopting Federalism: Union Day and the Three Main National Causes

Today was Union Day in Myanmar. This is the day that commemorates the signing of the Panglong Agreement in 1947.

It is customary for a government to set out its priorities on this day. The military’s priorities this year share broad similarities with the NLD’s in 2020. Both refer to the Three Main National Causes, both refer to the peace process and both refer to the need to draft a constitution that establishes a democratic federal union.

The references to the peace process and a constitution that reflects democracy and federalism are nothing new, even if the explicit reference to a democratic federal union is a change of tune for the military.

The military’s move is what I have elsewhere called the co-optation of federalism. That is, the military is using federalism, a term that resonates strongly with ethnic minority claims, to coopt these groups into its model of the military-state. It is co-opting the idea of federalism in the same way that the 2008 Constitution co-opts the idea of democracy by reducing it to a partially elected legislature with an omnipresent military.

Even today, the Commander in Chief continues to refer to the need to safeguard the 2008 Constitution. This would suggest that the military doesn’t intend to draft an entirely new Constitution but rather amend the existing one. This would be consistent with the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and the Union Accord, which in effect has already begun to set out revised principles for a new Constitution.

Dating back to 2015 when the military-backed USDP was in control, the NCA uses the language of federalism and democracy (chapter 1a). The NCA states that signatories agree that decisions made by the Union Peace Conference will become the basis for constitutional amendment and legal reform (s 22d).

One reason that any aspirations for federalism are inevitably compromised is because the military is still adhering to the Three Main National Causes. Its important to understand the history of this ideology and the function it has in reinforcing the leading role of the military. In fact, I would almost go as far as to say that this is the most important provision of the Constitution (ss 6a-c). Here is an explanation: (extract from chapter 3, The Constitution of Myanmar A Contextual Analysis)

“The Constitution contains a set of three principles that form the ideological basis of Myanmar’s military-state. I use the term ‘military-state’ to describe the co-existence of civilian and military authorities. The military-state is animated by three principles that are included as explicit written provisions in the Constitution. These principles were originally known as ‘Our Three Main National Causes’, capitalised in English translations. In the 1990s, these principles were announced through military orders. In 1993, the Union Solidarity Development Association (the precursor to the political party known as the Union Solidarity and Development Party), was committed to promoting and preserving the Three Main National Causes.

In official English translations by the government, these three principles are distilled as:

non-disintegration of the Union

non-disintegration of national solidarity

the perpetuation of sovereignty

These principles are living artefacts of direct military rule. By emphasising that these are ‘Our’ causes, the Tatmadaw co-opts the people into its cause. The principles claim priority in terms of their status as the ‘Main’ or preeminent principles of the state. The principles claim an intimate connection to the state as ‘National Causes’, even though it was the Tatmadaw at the time running the apparatus of the state. These principles appear on nine separate occasions in the Constitution.

These directives are included in the Constitution to command the loyalty of the people, political parties, Tatmadaw officers, the administration, the judiciary and legislators. All branches of government, as well as the people individually and collectively, are bound by these principles. These are deeply conservative principles and profess to maintain the status quo. This was a deliberate drafting strategy and aspect of constitutional design.

The first element, non-disintegration of the Union, embodies the territorial unity of the military-state. This principle represents the rejection and denial of the secessionist and separatist demands of ethnic groups. The Tatmadaw has long rallied against groups that oppose the government or take up arms, whether it be communist insurgents, pro-democracy activists or ethnic armed organisations. Independent Burma struggled to contain and control both insurgency by the Communist Party of Burma and the armed struggles of armed ethnic organisations for territory and recognition. The unusual constitutional option of secession for certain ethnic groups after ten years in the 1947 Constitution was never realised, and this became a rallying point for ethnic grievances. The principle of non-disintegration is a reference to the territorial integrity of the country and is anti-secessionist. The principle seeks to combat the perceived risk of anarchy, disunity and chaos with an exhortation to resist and prevent state fragmentation or collapse. The potential threat of the splintering of state territory is designed to invoke fears of crisis and chaos. This is one of the two elements that are cast in the negative. The use of the negative form implies that the Union is already fully integrated and so all that is needed is to maintain this state of affairs.

The second element, the disintegration of national solidarity, overlaps with the first principle but also hints at the idea that there is a certain people or nation that is the subject of the Constitution. This is also cast in the negative and presumes that national solidarity has already been achieved. In Myanmar, the Constitution conceives of ‘the people’ in limited terms as national races. The state recognises 135 ethnic races, although Burmans are the dominant group. The Constitution insists these national races must stand in unity. Recognition as a national race confers legitimacy and inclusion in the state. The absence of recognition as a national race leads to exclusion and marginalisation and, at worse, statelessness. Cheesman suggests that the concept of national races has overtaken and become a precondition for citizenship. National races are based on an arbitrary race matrix. All national races are expected to stand in national solidarity. No national race should attempt to secede from the military-state, according to this principle.

Third, the perpetuation of sovereignty is a reference to the integrity of the state. The need to defend state sovereignty against the risk of foreign interference was a constant source of paranoia for the military regime. This fear of foreignness had multiple manifestations but includes resistance to colonial rule, fear of communist insurgents, fear of the West and of the international community as embodied in the United Nations, and fear of its populous and powerful neighbours, China and India. Some even claim that one reason (among others) for the relocation and building of a new capital in Naypyidaw was to reduce the risk of invasion by foreign powers. The principle of the consolidation and longevity of sovereignty is related to the continuity of the state and its main political actors, that is, the role of the Tatmadaw in protecting national sovereignty.

The first two principles imply that the goal of national solidarity and integration of the Union has already been achieved, and that all that is left to do now is to ensure that it does not fall apart. Like the first two, the third principle presumes that sovereignty has been attained. All that is left to do is for the Tatmadaw to ensure the maintenance and longevity of this sovereignty.

The Tatmadaw has created a historical narrative to justify these three principles. In the Tatmadaw mindset, the need for these principles arises from the tragedy of colonial rule. The Tatmadaw depicts Burma during the period of colonial conquest (1823-1885) as weak and divided. The narrative goes that Burma lost control of its territory and forfeited its national sovereignty because of its divided and unorganized nature. All blame is placed on British colonisers for suspicions, divisions and antagonisms between different national races. They also blame the British for exploiting natural resources, but in doing so the Tatmadaw’s narrative glosses over the devastation wrought by the socialist regime on the economy and the recent decades of rampant resource exploitation by cronies. The Tatmadaw rallies against British ‘imperialists’ and Japanese ‘fascists’, but never acknowledges the decades of exploitative Tatmadaw rule. The purpose of this re-telling of national history is to cast all blame on a group other than the Tatmadaw and to paint over the complicity of the socialist and military regimes in the demise of the state.

These three principles link to and reinforce the role of the Tatmadaw as leading the country: in silencing secessionist claims and brokering ceasefire deals; in building and promoting a fixed and exclusive idea of national races; and in holding the line against any unwanted interference by foreign powers. These principles are repeated consistently and regularly throughout the Constitution. The principles first appear in the preamble and Chapter I on the Basic Principles of the Constitution. The principles are listed as a core responsibility of the Tatmadaw. Citizens also have the responsibility to uphold and protect these principles. In addition, the principles are contained in the oath sworn by the president and vice-presidents, the oath for all legislators, as a constitutional obligation of all citizens, and as a constitutional requirement that all political parties include these principles in their objectives. The principles are also given a prominent place in legislation, particularly in the laws of 2010 that were drafted by the prior military regime in preparation for the implementation of the Constitution.

These principles embody the constitutionalisation of the Tatmadaw’s vision of the state. This vision was developed over several decades of direct military rule. The principles emanated from every orifice of the state: over the radio, in schools and printed in newspapers. In 1999, the first defence policy issued by the Tatmadaw included reference to Our Three Main National Causes. The principles were required to be printed on the inside cover of every book and publication under the censorship regime enforced by military rule. The principles were listed in the Tatmadaw’s defence policy of SLORC. The Tatmadaw remains an active proponent and promoter of this doctrine. Even today, the Tatmadaw still refers to ‘Our Three Main National Causes’ along with exhortations to protect the Constitution (s 20(f) of the Constitution).

These principles not only limit state institutions, but place limits on other actors – ethnic groups, civil society, political parties, elite political actors, individuals – and calibrate their relationship to the Tatmadaw. The principles do not of themselves constitute a limit on the power of the strongest institution, the Tatmadaw. Although the idea of a constitution as placing limits on public power is prominent globally, many aspects of a constitution are enabling and facilitate the use of power. These principles justify and facilitate the role of the Tatmadaw as the leading body. The Three Main National Causes condition the lived experiences of people in Myanmar’s military-state…”