Maw Htun Aung: False ‘Negative Perceptions’ Make People Afraid of Federalism

Monday, August 3, 2020

NMG spoke to Maw Htun Aung, a strategic advisor to Yangon-based think tank Another Development, about the ongoing to regarding management of natural resources and how this relates to future federalism in Burma.

The interview is below.

Burma has a Gemstones Law, but are people in places like jade-rich Hpakant, Kachin State really benefiting from this? What difficulties does the government have when putting this law into practice?

There are many stakeholders in the extraction of gems from Hpakant. From a political perspective, it is connected to the political economy and prominent people. For instance, ethnic armed organizations that signed a ceasefire agreement with government have extraction licenses. [Former military junta leader] U Than Shwe and his family members have a company and they have invested in it. Therefore, there is no question that it is really difficult for the current ruling government to handle this issue. What we do not really want are excuses. We want to know how they are handling this issue. Even though it is difficult, we want them to try. The problem is that they are not working enough to solve this problem.

What challenges do we face regarding managing natural resources in a federal system?

We need to take Hpakant as a sample case study and discuss how we can fairly distribute [profits]. It’s not based on ethnicity—how can we make sure local people benefit? How do we measure these benefits? It’s not only when we are talking about Hpakant, but also Letpadaung, Mogok, Mong Hsu, and other areas where we have deposits of natural resources.

We have to discuss how to equally distribute funds when we are going to build a federal Union. It would be good if stakeholders could discuss this issue in the peace process.

Federalism doesn’t mean that ethnic states will take everything. The idea that states take everything is wrong. It’s true that ethnic states have natural resources… If states or regions have full power to manage natural resources, they are going to get the riches. Actually, federalism means that states and regions will have the power to manage natural resources and share the benefits with other states and regions.

How should natural resources be shared in a federal system, in your opinion?

If we have a federal system in practice, it’s not enough to talk only about sharing natural resources. We should refer to “resources” such as human resources, natural resources, financial resources, etc. When we look at natural resources, Kachin State, Shan State and Sagaing Region are full of natural resources. In the longer term, states and regions that have financial and human resources will have more development. Many people think that if we practice federalism, ethnic states will have full management power of natural resources and these states will be richer. It’s not completely true. In practice, regions will have more long-term benefits if the country practices federalism.
I don’t know who gave people this wrong idea. If the country practices a federal system, many people think that people in the Regions will suffer. It’s not true. If Regions can manage their resources, they will have more development. In the short term, ethnic states would be able to fulfill their development needs if they are able to manage their natural resources. I think federalism creates a win-win situation for both ethnic states and regions.

You refer to a “wrong idea” given to the people. What does this mean?

There are many ideas. For example, what we have we learned from history. We have learned many negative perceptions of federalism, so people in central Burma are afraid of federalism. Many people think that our country will disintegrate. Many people think that only Kachin State will develop because Kachin State has natural resources. Actually, it’s not like that. If our country practices a federal system, Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw will immediately develop because these regions can manage their resources.

Natural resources will be gone in a specified time, like five or 10 years, so ethnic states need to transform their education systems. They can extract natural resources and use [the funds] toward education. That’s why ethnic states need to extract natural resources and invest in education and infrastructure. There are good transportation roads in the Regions. Education institutions are strong there. If Regions have full power to manage their resources, they will develop quickly.

Take Yangon Region for example: 70 percent of companies are based in Yangon. People in Yangon cannot fully benefit from this because Yangon Region has to share the benefits with the Union. Then the Union government shares it with other states and regions. Yangon has five times the population of Mandalay but the municipal budget does not [reflect this difference]. Yangon’s municipal budget is double that of Mandalay, but it should be five times more than Mandalay’s. [This would be the case] if the country practiced a federal system. If Yangon had a budget that was five times greater, it would be much more developed. But the country doesn’t practice a federal system.

Can you explain what federalism means in simple terms?

Federalism means nobody can bully each other. For example, a rich man cannot bully a poor man. There is no bullying between the majority and minorities. There is no bullying between the rich and poor states. Frankly, federalism means “equality and justice.” It is stated in our national anthem. Those are the values of federalism.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.