Could Federalism Smooth Southeast Asia’s Rough Edges?

9 MINS READJan 26, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Myanmar's mountainous terrain has contributed to ethnic divisions that have fueled long-running insurgencies.
(YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)

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

  • 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 in an effort to manage separatist sentiments by reorienting them toward national goals. The issue takes many forms, but in constitutional terms, it largely hinges on the difference between a unitary state with sovereignty concentrated in the central government and a federalist state that divides power among local regions. Now, Myanmar and the Philippines have signaled the possibility of broader experiments in federalism with far-reaching constitutional overhauls. But the path to such changes is fraught with potentially insurmountable obstacles, while achieving them runs the risk of inflaming deep geographic tensions.

Finding the Right Balance

Federalism is a system that shares sovereignty, and therefore power, between the central government and local bodies such as states or provinces. The United States has a classically federalist system of government, as does Canada, Russia, India and numerous others. In practice, the extent of power sharing varies, but the system of governance ensures that smaller geopolitical units enjoy greater clout in determining domestic policy. While some Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia and Myanmar, grant some power to special autonomous regions, only Malaysia is officially "federalist," even though the country operates as a unitary state on many levels.

The benefits of centralization are enticing to many countries. If a central government is weak, it will struggle to implement coherent political or development schemes across poorly governed spaces or even to put the weight of the nation behind a broader geopolitical strategy. Without centralization, local groups can more easily derail initiatives such as trade policies, infrastructure projects or minority protections. However, this top-down approach has its downsides, as clamping down on local groups too tightly has frequently fueled the political narratives of more extreme elements. Federalism offers space for those groups who cooperate with the central government to achieve legitimacy, while sidelining others that represent a greater threat to the state. The system can also open avenues for experimentation with different social or economic policies that might not work nationwide. Carving out some space for local grievances can help calm disputes and free the central government to address external threats and strategic issues.

The Pitfalls of Change in Myanmar

Since independence, Myanmar has struggled to overcome its deep ethnic divisions. Post-independence ethnic and communist insurgencies laid the groundwork for five decades of rule by a military whose primary goal was to maintain national unity and root out separatism. The military’s continued strong hand in politics following the 2010 political transition is justified by this objective – and by the threat posed by the ethnic wars that continue to grind on.

Areas of Ethnic Militant Activity in Myanmar
But in his 2018 New Year’s address, Myanmar President Htin Kyaw issued a renewed call for constitutional change to usher in a federal democratic union. Ethnic political groups both armed and unarmed have long called for such an overhaul to give their state governments power over their business environment, local revenues, cultural issues and local appointments. Since it came to power in 2015, the ruling National League for Democracy has called for a constitutional overhaul that would include a measure of federalism. But with the government's term expiring in 2020 and ethnic peace processes stalling, time is running out to launch reform.
However, achieving such a goal will be difficult in the face of military stubbornness — to say nothing regarding doubts as to whether the National League for Democracy truly desires federalism. Although the civilian party and army have long been at loggerheads, its politicians agree with the military that the chaos of local political rule represents a threat to the country’s territorial integrity and stability. The military fears chaos, while the civilian government fears economic stagnation. Instead of federalism for its own sake, Myanmar’s civilian government supports such decentralization only insofar as it can eliminate the spikes in ethnic violence that have dragged down the country’s economic growth.
Introducing federalism in Myanmar could also foment an entirely new set of problems. Decentralization works best when a government exercises consolidated control over a geographic space, allowing it to delegate power to local bodies with confidence. Naypyidaw, however, has yet to achieve such stable control. Myanmar has five self-administered zones and one self-administered division, the last of which is under the control of the powerful United Wa State Army. Many of these zones have served as gateways for Chinese influence, and implementing full federalization in all regions of the country could make the country vulnerable to divide-and-rule tactics by Beijing or other outside powers. Remaking the state in a federalist format, especially one with strong local powers, also risks empowering local oligarchs, business executives and strongmen to the degree that it would undermine the coherent development of the country. Such a program could also create a whole raft of new questions as to which ethnic groups would enjoy what level of power or recognition at the local level. And given the current level of violence among ethnic groups in the country, it is a debate that could further inflame bloody conflict – as has already been the case with the Rohingya. As a result of these concerns and the military’s pre-eminent position, Myanmar is unlikely to implement federalism any time soon.

The Punisher’s Search for a Panacea

In the Philippines, by contrast, the process may have already started. In mid-January, the country’s lower house voted to transform itself into a constituent assembly to revise the constitution into a federalist system. Although resistance from the Senate and Supreme Court remains a possibility, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte — dubbed "The Punisher" — campaigned on promises to enact federalism in 2016 and currently boasts a strong hand politically. And as the first president from the far-flung southern region of Mindanao to install himself in "imperial Manila," he has every reason to decentralize the system and reduce the capital’s influence. Furthermore, such action could even enhance his standing as a strongman by diluting the power of other national-level leaders.


Economic Disparity in the Philippines

Calls for federalism have long emanated from certain quarters of Philippine politics, and the case for a reorganization of governance is clear: Central administrations in the Philippines have found it difficult to square the often-conflicting interests of the groups residing on the country's 7,000 different islands. With the islands grouped into three rough regions, Manila possesses little room for maneuver to satisfy the country’s numerous ethnic, clan and economic interests. Efforts to rein in these centrifugal forces have spawned numerous insurgencies, most notably Muslim Moro groups in Mindanao and the communist New People’s Army, which operates nationwide in peripheral spaces. This internal chaos has forced the Philippines to draw inward and sacrifice its foreign policy goals. Since 2016, for example, in an effort to free resources to resolve internal matters, the Philippines has pursued a conciliatory tack toward China, which has been aggressively laying claim to areas of the South China Sea. By introducing federalism, Duterte hopes to quiet these local grievances once and for all so that the central government can finally direct its energy toward asserting itself in the region.

Philippine officials have already sketched a rough draft of a federalist solution for the country. Currently, the Philippines is governed according to a unitary system with power flowing from the central government to 81 provinces in 17 regions, the capital region and independent cities. Local budgets are subject to central approval, and provinces can collect revenue only in the forms of real estate taxes and business permits. As author David Martinez quipped, "Not a leaf can fall in our country without [central government] permission." Federalism would shrink the number of local bodies — perhaps to as few as five states. These states would control their own police forces, exercise the power to impose taxes, regulate businesses and run courts, as well as govern education, healthcare, transportation, industry and culture. Federalism would also enhance the revenue-collecting capabilities of localities to permit them to collect mineral taxes and benefit from other funding streams. The issue has become extremely pertinent due to the recent outbreak of Islamic State activity on Mindanao.

A peace process is continuing with the mainstream militant Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but the slow pace of the concessions and economic growth promised as part of the talks has generated frustration, partly fueling the rise of such extremists. A 2014 deal between the MILF and the government promised stronger local control over government by establishing Bangsamoro, a special region on Mindanao. Duterte is hoping to make the region a part of his broader federalist push in a bid to delegitimize extremist Moro groups.
But federalism will face an uphill battle, as evidenced by failed constitutional reform efforts during President Gloria Arroyo's rule in 2006. Many have expressed doubts that federalism is a good model, with former Philippine Supreme Court Justice Hilario Davide Jr. depicting federalism as "a lethal experiment, a fatal leap, a plunge to death, a leap to hell." As in Myanmar, some fear that federalism could empower corrupt local leaders and result in mass waste, stagnation and misdirected development projects. Arroyo’s efforts to introduce federalism failed because of these concerns – in addition to accusations that her reforms were designed to extend her term limits. Even if the Philippines engages in decentralization, the process itself would present many challenges and last for years — and even then, it likely would proceed more smoothly only in more developed regions.

Regardless of the future couse of the federalist debate in Myanmar and the Philippines, calls for localized control will continue across the region. With many of Southeast Asia’s borders set by colonial authorities — and others still in dispute or poorly controlled — these countries will continue to bleed around their edges. Ceding power to such areas is intended to co-opt and appease separatist forces but risks empowering them to seek more independence and start redrawing the map. And in a contentious neighborhood at the nexus of great powers, redrawing the map could have huge implications for regional and global stability.


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