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Deliberative democracy and federal constitutional design and building in Myanmar

Baogang He, Deakin University / Dr Michael Breen, University of Melbourne

Tue 30 October 2018

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


The recent deliberative democracy literature has addressed many issues on constitutionalism. In particular, John Dryzek’s seminal work on deliberative democracy in divided society and James Fishkin’s deliberative polling on constitutional matters offer a new fresh approach and thinking. This paper aims to engage and advance the current theorizing on deliberative democracy and constitutionalism through a case study of deliberative forums on federal constitutionalism in Myanmar.

Myanmar is in an important phase of its democratic transition as it tackles the form of federalism most suited to its conditions and aspirations.  Since the 1947 Panglong conference, demands by the ethnic nationalities for ‘genuine federalism’, which have been a primary factor behind conflict, have remained unmet and continue to foment unrest and mistrust. The opportunity for substantive federal reform, and associated peace-building, is present and being progressed at the national level, through Union Peace Dialogues, involving elite level representatives from the military, ethnic armed groups and political parties. However, these forums suffer from problems of democratic legitimacy, significant delay, and polarisation. As one supplement to this process, and in order to demonstrate the value of a deliberative, rather than majoritarian, approach to reform, the presenters organised four deliberative forums based on the deliberative polling methodology. Two deliberations involved mostly members of political parties, ethnic armed groups and civil society organisations, while the other two involved mostly laypersons selected by civil society organisation. Designing the deliberative forums in this way helps to address competing recommendations for deliberation in constitution-making and on identity-based issues – namely those that regard such deliberation as best occurring among laypeople, who are more likely to change to their minds but have limited understanding of technical issues, and those who suggest elite-based forums. We found that in each case participants did change their minds, sometimes against expectations, but to a different degree. Technical matters, like the division of powers, were more pertinent to the elite, while issues like whether or not there should be federalism saw more substantial changes among laypeople. Further, involving political parties and ethnic armed groups established a semi-detached link to the official constitutional change process, in this case the Union Peace Dialogues (21st Century Panglong), and the potential to contribute to the establishment of a more deliberative system.

About the speakers

Baogang He is Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in International Relations since 2005, at Deakin University, Australia. Graduated with a PhD in Political Science from Australian National University in 1994, Professor He has become widely known for his work in Chinese democratisation and politics, in particular the deliberative politics in China. Professor He has published 7 single-authored books and 63 international refereed journal articles. His publications are found in top journals including British Journal of Political Science, Journal of Peace Research, Political Theory, and Perspectives on Politics. In addition, he published 3 books, 15 book chapters and 63 journal papers in Chinese. Professor He has also held several honorary appointments and research fellowships at renowned universities including Stanford University, University of Cambridge, Columbia University, Leiden and Sussex University.

Michael Breen is a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Prior to that Michael worked at Deakin University, after completing his PhD at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Michael's research focuses on federalism in Asia, and the management of ethnic diversity. He is the author of 'The Road to Federalism in Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka: Finding the Middle Ground' (2018, Routledge) and has participated in Nepal's constitution-making process that established it as a federal democratic republic. Michael's research also explores the role of deliberative democracy and the use of deliberative polling in constitution-making and conflict management. Prior to academia, Michael was a policy maker, negotiator and project manager in various government departments in Australia and international organisations including the United Nations Development Programme. His professional background is in Indigenous rights and native title, political inclusion and environmental conservation.

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