Federalism was not something Thant Thet Oo Khant, a 20-year-old student at Myanmar’s Yadanabon University, knew a lot about before taking an iPACE class at the U.S. Embassy Jefferson Center in Mandalay.
But the more he learned about federalism, including the U.S. system of government established under the Constitution, and discussed it with friends in his university book club, the more he believed that it was a good fit for his country too.
“Our country has many races,” explains Thant Thet Oo Khant. “I believe a federalist system can provide us with the space to effectively co-exist.”
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a Southeast Asian country that borders giants China and India, as well as Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand. The country has been in democratic transition since 2010, following five decades of authoritarian rule. It is made up of 15 states and divisions and 135 indigenous ethnic groups. Various regional and ethnic conflicts continue throughout the country, giving Myanmar the dubious distinction of having the world’s longest ongoing civil war.
Thant Thet Oo Khant studied federalism at the Institute for Political and Civic Engagement (iPACE), which is at the forefront of training Myanmar’s future change-makers. The civil society program is run by World Learning, an international non-governmental organization that works in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar. Since its founding in 2012, iPACE has trained more than 2,000 civic leaders on the principles of civil society and participatory democracy. iPACE alumni represent a diverse group of 50 ethnicities from all of Myanmar’s states and divisions as well as all major religions in the country.
Thant Thet Oo Khant’s iPACE trainer encouraged class participants to look for ways to apply the concepts of federalism in their own lives. As an active member of the student union, he knew exactly where he wanted to start.
“There had been discussion prior to this that the way our union was structured was not representative of all the diverse backgrounds of people that attend the university,” Thant Thet Oo Khant explains. The current student union is managed by a permanent committee of nine elected members — including Thant Thet Oo Khant — who represent the largest ethnic groups. But this summer, the student body will hold an election that will — for the first time — elect permanent members not based on ethnic representation but based on merit. It will also add an advisory committee representing the university’s 21 student majors.
Thant Thet Oo Khant’s got even bigger plans once the new student body structure is in place, including revamping the election system, creating voter education, and maybe even stepping down from his leadership position. “The Leadership course I took at iPACE also taught me that I don’t have to be at the forefront running the movement in order to lead it,” he says. “I can be a different type of a leader. I can step down and lead the thought process — I feel I will have a bigger impact this way.”