Why is the Dry Zone’s Conception of Federalism Important? Understanding its Significance in Building a Genuine Federal Union

Author: Thiri

Executive summary

The conception of federalism has been and continues to be a controversial issue in Myanmar. At the critical juncture, creative ways of thinking about federalism are conceivable. Federalism has long been defined as “a shared political vision to forge political solidarity between the pro-democracy and federal proponents.” Historically, the majority of the Bamar regions have been under a mostly centralized government system. Along with the pro-democracy movement, to be a self-determined and federal unit is increasingly demanding but unfamiliar for the dry zone areas. Meanwhile, the understanding and perception of federalism in Myanmar’s Bamar-majority regions are also important. Accordingly, the outcomes of reflected preferences of the public should thus be involved in the decision-making process. This study tends to facilitate the preliminary recommendations: the political will to introduce federalism, bottom-up system to move forward and common sense of belonging among its various ethnic groups.


In 1947, the representatives of Bamar, Chin, Kachin, and Shan ethnic groups signed the Panglong agreement. The Panglong agreement described federal government characteristics and included a side agreement such as the right to secession (Aung San et al., 1947). However, all successive governments still need to deliver federalism. After winning the 2015 election, the National League for Democracy Party (NLD) promised to reimagine the Panglong agreement and implement federalism as a political solution. However, the peace process and federalism are stuck, and the roadmap toward a federal democratic union has not come to life.

In February 2021, Myanmar experienced a military takeover again. The military invited Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) to join a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA); however, they have not yet taken concrete actions for federalism. On the other hand, following the coup, the National Unity Government-NUG (a kind of government-in-exile) drafted a federal democracy charter and is now working towards developing a federal system of government for the country (Breen, 2021). Nevertheless, agreeing on and designing a system of federalism is a considerable challenge to get a common ground.

The federal system affects all sectors of society and supports democratization and development processes. Moreover, federalism promotes political participation, encourages economic equality across the country, provides for multiple levels of government action, and accommodates a diversity of opinions (Filippov, M., & Shvetsova, O, 2013). Since public recognition is paramount to the implementation of a federal system, the will of the public, at least, should be considered in the process. If representatives of the majority group are not well prepared for the diverse practices of federalism, this could be presented by contentious politicians. The voice and opinions of the people in the dry zone should be considered in the process. If not so, poorly designed federalism may pose potential risks. It is about time for citizens to have their say. So, the public deserves to be questioned about their preferences and acceptability towards federalism of Bamar communities and to broaden the discussion on federalism. The brief argues that assessing the Bamar people’s understanding of federalism is crucial to advancing towards a federal union.

Why is the Dry Zone’s Conception of Federalism Important?
  • Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices

The Bamar majority in Myanmar used to see federalism as an ethnic issue but not a national issue (Joint Peace Fund, 2019). Ethnic Armed Organizations have partially controlled some parts of the states and implemented governance and regime practices in their controlled areas, delivering services to their community. After the military takeover in 2021, the Bamar became diverse and aspiring to federalism. Although the aftermath of a coup has changed the attitudes towards federalism and ethnic issues, the essence of federalism is still under-understood among the public because of struggling with socioeconomic concerns and conflict.

According to reports from the Joint Peace Fund, knowledge of the federalism process, mechanisms, and terms are slightly below the national average. However, the dry zone region’s public has a positive attitude toward the federalism process. And, most people have less political participation and must be aware of how politics and federalism are essential for their socioeconomic situation. Moreover, opportunities to engage in the federalism process are limited, and people often realize themselves as less capable of discussing current affairs, which hinders participation. So, it is urgently necessary to reflect on their preferences for federalism.

  • Challenges and Remedies for Introducing Federalism

When discussing federalism and making political considerations, the political leadership group representing the Bamar (Bamar consultative body) needs more room from the perspective of geography and ethnic based federalism. Bamar political and military elites have long been wary of federalism. And, institutions and ethnic identities have interacted to empower some and marginalize others. According to the system and regime, being a Bamar is a kind of unconscious privilege; it will be. Armed conflict indirectly impacts on individuals who have not personally experienced it through the decline of country-wide development, economic and educational difficulties. So, the stakeholders should be aware of how federalism is wanted to be portrayed by the public in the dry zone, and make it a part of the process (Personal Interview, 2022). Now, Myanmar is building the foundation for a new nation and it should adopt the policies to build a just and inclusive federal union and take equitable account of the situation of the majority community. At the time, people’s preferences must be imported through political participation.

  • Considerations for Designing a Federal System

Furthermore, most existing policies relating to federalism are technocratic, which usually ignores people’s voices and needs more community participation. Thus, the political system should be concerned with the democratic means that pave the way toward meaningful participation in the dry zone. As it is likely to become a problem in the future, it is necessary to shape the perceptions of the Bama and listen to their voices. Some interviewees felt that more needs to be done to improve the inclusiveness and implementation of the federalism process. Therefore, there should be more scope for public participation in political activities, despite their desire to do so. By this way, Myanmar can find a middle way to support political equality between groups and individuals.

Policy Relevance

The brief explores political and legal considerations and recommends that critical stakeholders interested in and participating in Myanmar’s path to a federal union should pursue the following actions:

  • To establish the political will to introduce federalism while incorporating a declaration of a federal democratic union

The Bamar need to comprehend the meaning of federalism and prepare for the diverse practices of federalism before attempting to discuss ‘the way forward’. So, the political stakeholders should focus on awareness to become effective and efficient.

  • To pave the way for the public to engage in the process of developing a federal union “from the bottom-up”

Rethinking that public opinion must be reflected in the policy that the government can realistically implement. The country’s stakeholders should base on a bottom-up system for making an informed and independent decision to move forward on this sensitive national issue.

  • To promote and enhance meaningful participation and achieve a common sense of belonging among its various ethnic nations

Bamar needs to be involved in assessing the issues to some extent in the design of the federal system. This major restructuring should be approached in an inclusive manner. And, political discussions should emphasize the benefits of decentralization and socio-economic development.