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Constitutional Stalemate Sinks Hopes of Genuine Democracy and National Reconciliation

By Burma Partnership  •  November 25, 2014

2008-Myanmar-Constitution-in-Burmese-and-EnglishOn Tuesday 18 November, Parliamentary Speaker of the lower house of the Burma Parliament Thura Shwe Mann boldly announced – to everyone’s great frustration but no one’s great surprise – that there would be no amendments made to the controversial 2008 Constitution before the 2015 national elections.  So, what are the implications of this announcement, and why is the timing significant?

The implications for democracy in Burma are threefold.  First, unless Article 59(f) is amended, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not be able to lead her NLD party and run for President in the 2015 elections.  Although many have long feared the worst, thus far hope has persisted, especially in light of the NLD’s highly successful campaign in favor of constitutional amendment, which attracted five million signatories in support.  However, Thura Shwe Mann now seems to be calling time on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career – and the dreams of so many long-suffering and long-hopeful Burmese – smoothly but ruthlessly side-lining her until such time as she can safely be labeled a political irrelevance, and dumped for good.  At the same time, his comments can be interpreted as an oblique, discreet and wily announcement of his own ambitions for a tilt at the presidency next year.

Second, without a significant overhaul of the 2008 Constitution to ensure that the rights, autonomy and self-determination of ethnic minority nationalities are respected and enshrined in law, the peace process does not stand a chance.  Fighting rages on in Kachin State – not to mention in northern Shan and Karen State – with no sign of abating.  The day after Thura Shwe Mann made his announcement, 23 Kachin and other ethnic nationality soldiers were killed and as many as 15 wounded when Burma Army troops fired on a military training base in Laiza, the strategic headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army.

Despite some military MPs’ expressing their support for power-sharing between the Union Government and State Governments during the recent parliamentary debate on the Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee’s report, one general offered a different perspective.  Defence Services personnel MP Colonel Khin Myint suggested: “At present, peace cannot be restored in the regions where there are some skirmishes between armed ethnic groups and government troops.  As some protests continue to take place for various reasons, we should not amend […] the Constitution.”  Such comments are particularly disingenuous in light of the unprovoked and disproportionate Burma Army attacks in Kachin State.

Finally, without amendment of Article 436 – which requires a vote of 75% of both houses of Parliament in order to authorize constitutional amendment, and upon which all other possible constitutional amendments hinge – the military will retain its effective veto on constitutional amendment given its prescribed 25% seat allocation.  This means that the essence of politics in Burma has not changed since the so-called reforms began in 2011: the military is still able to run the country, albeit dolled up in the trappings and cosmetics of democracy.  It also means that military impunity for human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity will continue to be constitutionally enshrined.

As for the timing – it cannot be a coincidence that this declaration of intent by Thura Shwe Mann comes so soon after President Obama’s visit to Burma.  It is a transparent and age-old tactic, often used by authoritarian regimes when they are trying to court international friends: wait until the leaders and dignitaries are safely on their way home, and then announce controversial strategies, take repressive action, leak bad news.  It is a worrying sign that this constitutional bombshell comes so soon after President Obama’s trip, as it shows that the Burma Government and Army mean business.

Sadly, it rather looks like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is conceding defeat.  The day after Thura Shwe Mann’s speech, she said that she accepted this view that proposed amendments to the 2008 Constitution will have to wait until after the 2015 national elections to be put to a vote in Parliament.  But why?  If the elections are held on the basis of the current undemocratic 2008 Constitution, then they will not be free and fair.

Despite the fact that President Obama has left Burma, he and the international community should immediately condemn this recent declaration, and apply as much economic, political and moral leverage as it takes to ensure that the Burma Government proves its reformist credentials and initiates urgent constitutional action before the 2015 national elections.  Democracy in Burma depends upon it; and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi above all others should know that.

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