Internal self-determination and constitutional reform in Myanmar

Author: Nay Khyi Win Swe

Swe, Nay Khyi Win, 2021 Internal self-determination and constitutional reform in Myanmar, Flinders University, College of Business, Government and Law

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As a newly democratising nation, Myanmar is a pluri-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious country with a culturally diverse population comprising over 135 recognised ethnic groups. Since gaining independence in 1948, Myanmar (formerly Burma) has experienced prolonged instability resulting from over half a century of oppressive military rule under the Armed Forces of Myanmar, known today as Tatmadaw, and from a long-running, ethnic-based insurgency fighting for minority rights of self-determination. Consequently, building unity out of diversity is the greatest challenge to democracy and yet it is the broad objective that Myanmar people desire. Ethnic armed minority groups in the country have been calling for a Democratic Federal Union with the right to self-determination and freedom from discrimination because they have been oppressed and marginalised by the Bamar dominant majority ethnic group for decades. However, the nation’s current constitution precludes these important provisions, and the military’s dominant role in government prevents the appropriate reforms needed in the constitution. The self-determination rights claimed by ethnic people can be legitimised and achieved only if they are embodied in the nation’s constitution. However, with the exception of the draft constitution proposed by the country’s first leader, General Aung San, the formal constitutions enacted in 1947, 1974, and 2008 have not reflected the right to self-determination of ethnic people nor have they referred to a Federal Union. By examining the three constitutions of the Union of Burma, which became Myanmar in 1989, this paper aims to highlight why constitutional reform is needed in Myanmar. Such a process of reform has been resisted by the Tatmadaw, which assumes that self-determination will lead to secession of ethnic groups and territories, and loss of the military’s control over the country and its people. This struggle for self-determination and conflicting interpretations of what constitutional reform would mean for the nation has resulted in many armed clashes, stalled Myanmar’s peace process, and prevented constitutional reform. Therefore, this research argues that clarification of the concept of internal self-determination and reforming the constitution would lead to a peaceful resolution to the present conflict. Accordingly, a new constitution is proposed which does not allow for secession, but does allow minority ethnic peoples autonomy and the right to choose their own regional government, while also prohibiting discrimination against minorities regardless of ethnicity, race, or religion, as a means of achieving a lasting peace in the country. Furthermore, a form of blended federalism is recommended to accommodate the needs of such an ethnically and culturally diverse population while building an overarching sense of nationalism with common objectives in partnership for all the peoples of Myanmar.

Keywords: Keywords: internal self-determination, constitutional reform, federal union, ethnic people, armed ethnic conflicts, peace

Subject: International Relations thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2021
School: College of Business, Government and Law
Supervisor: Professor Miguel Vatter