Non-Burman states, known as Frontier Areas during the British days, used to have their own constitutions, then known as “regulations”.

But after Independence, there has been none. If someone wants to know how Shan State, formerly the Federated Shan States, is being governed, what he/she has to do is to open and read what’s written in the Union constitutions 1947, 1974 and 2008.

It was the late Chao Tzang Yawnghwe (1939-2004) who first planted the idea among non-Burman leaders and activists fighting for federalism that for Burma to be a genuine union, each state must have its own constitution.

Many constitutional experts have given comments echoing Chao Tzang, including Julian Hottinger who earlier this year, told a meeting of ethnic leaders that although none of the existing federal nations are same and alike, all of them share the following characteristics:

·         Each constituent state has its own constitution
·         Each constituent state has its own independent judiciary
·         There are at least two levels, union and state, of elections
·         The powers of the Union come from the states
·         The relationship between the Union and states are not only vertical but also horizontal
·         Equitable share of wealth

To which the leaders responded to it by saying, in Burma’s case, two more provisions should be added, namely:

·         States must have their own defense forces
·         States must have financial autonomy

Chins, with many of their youths trained abroad, were the first to draw their Chinland Constitution. Shans came second, beginning with a conference in 2000, when representatives from both Shan and non-Shan sectors participated. The three-day meeting came up with 2 guiding principles for the first draft:

·         Democratic, decentralized administrative system
·         Federal system

The first draft which came out 4 years later after consultations both at home and abroad was written under the said principles.

In 2007, another conference was called which added 7 more principles:

Sovereign power derives from the people of Shan State
·         To be a member state of a genuine federal union with other states
·         To guarantee equality among the Shan State’s ethnic nationalities
·         To guarantee ethnic minority rights
·         To guarantee basic human rights and gender equality
·         To practice a multi?party democratic system
·         To be a secular state

The second draft, with the slogan “To make Burma safe for and against ethnicity” paraphrasing the late Patrick Moynihan, came out in 2008 about the same time as the military drawn and adopted Union Constitution.

Naturally, it was not widely circulated at that time. But in areas where the drafters were able to publicize, many said it had made a fine comparison with the “of the military, by the military, for the military” charter. Through the study of the Shan draft, they were able to differentiate which one was “genuine union” and which one was “sham union.”

However, with the return of the “civilian” administration in 2011 under U Thein Sein, followed by his call for peace talks, Aung San Suu Kyi’s “coming from the cold” and economic reforms introduced by him, the state constitution movement was shelved.

But, last month, a parliamentary commission was formed to amend the constitution.

While nobody knows to what extent the ruling power, that enjoys an absolute majority in the parliament, is willing to amend it, many have suggested that “when a chest begins to unclose, it is time to pry it wide open” and one of the levers should be the revived state constitution movement.

And if the ruling power (read the military) is really serious about the perpetuation of the Union, the movement should be allowed to have an unhampered go. If not, then it is time the word “Union” is dropped, and “Empire” is inserted in its place.