Could Federalism Smooth Southeast Asia’s Rough Edges?

Jan 26, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

Myanmar's mountainous terrain has contributed to ethnic divisions that have fueled long-running insurgencies.

This photo taken on May 19, 2014, shows a bus on a mountain road in Chin state, Myanmar. 

(YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)


  • Southeast Asian countries will continue to explore the idea of granting more power to local areas as a way to deal with separatism and fragmentation.
  • The Philippines’ experiment with federalism could face strong pushback but will result in progress at least in certain areas such as Mindanao.
  • Myanmar’s push for similar reforms will be much more difficult due to robust opposition from the military — and even the ruling pro-democracy party.

Southeast Asia is a region defined by its fractures: Mountain ranges and jungled highlands carve up its land masses internally, while numerous seas and littoral waterways divide them from one another. This is no less true inside each country, as borders include numerous smaller geopolitical spaces – many of which have strong ethnic or historical ties with neighboring countries. The fact that many borders are porous, disputed or born of colonial machinations only complicates the situation. For those governing these countries, the struggle of the 20th century – and now the 21st – has been to manage these fractures, as well as achieve stability and the ability to pursue external geopolitical goals. More often than not, this has entailed asserting strong central control to root out forces that have threatened to pull apart the nation-state. To some degree, however, all of these governments have experimented with some level of local control...

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