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Significant Constitutional Changes are a Must for Genuine Democracy

By Burma Partnership  •  December 2, 2013

burma-charter-2008As the timeframe for submission to the parliamentary Joint Committee for Reviewing the Constitution enters its final month, pressure to amend this flawed document is ratcheting up. Opposition parties, ethnic armed groups, democracy activists, members of the public and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are all voicing how imperative it is for democracy that the constitution is changed.

The 2008 Constitution, which the military regime introduced after a sham referendum in 2008, entrenches the Burma Army in positions of power, gives the state the ownership of all land in the country, and denies Burma’s ethnic nationalities equality and the right to self-determination. It also fails on grounds of inclusiveness, omitting to protect and respect the human rights of all people in Burma, regardless of race, religion or color. It is undemocratic, illegitimate and a major hurdle for progress in Burma’s reform process.

The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been traveling throughout Burma eliciting people’s opinions on the constitution and intends to submit their findings before the committee’s deadline of 31 December. In Rangoon, the NLD found that 99% of the 20,000 people interviewed were in favor of amendments, rather than re-drafting the constitution. Due to the overwhelmingly clear results, the NLD requested a quadripartite meeting with the President, Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the leader of the main opposition party. As NLD spokesperson, Nyan Win explained, “According to our public surveys, the majority of people wish to see the constitution amended, and peace will not prevail unless this happens.” Yet the government rejected this request, citing the need for the committee to release its report first.

The problem with the committee is that its 109 members reflect the amount of MPs in the Parliament. Therefore, it is dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the military itself. The NLD only has seven members on the committee. It is unlikely that such a committee will recommend any significant amendments to the constitution that would affect the military.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, also spoke of the flaws in the constitution during her visit to Australia. She spoke at length about the undemocratic nature during a speech at the Sydney Opera House: “Those of you who think that Burma has successfully taken the path to reform, would be mistaken. If you want to know why you are mistaken, you only have to study the Burmese constitution… if you read it carefully, you will understand why we cannot have genuine democracy under such a constitution.” The 2008 Constitution contains a specific article, section 59(f), which effectively prevents Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president, as well as entrenching military power by automatically giving them 25% of seats in Parliament, with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) generals who wrote the document fearful of her popularity among the people of Burma.

However unfair this article is, there are fundamental problems that have a much more sweeping and deeper effect on the governance of Burma. In this respect, amending the constitution may not even go far enough. For example, for ethnic nationalities and the ethnic armed groups that have been fighting for the rights and self-determination of their people, and who have not been polled by the NLD, the constitution needs to be rewritten completely in favor of a federal system that will guarantee ethnic people their rights: “To have eternal peace in the country, it is important to have genuine federal state governance,” said Nai Hon Tha, General Secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) after meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi before her trip to Australia.

The 2008 Constitution is a flawed, undemocratic document that must be changed, whether through amendments or complete rewrite. While much focus internationally has been on the clause that effectively bans Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from running for President, this is just the tip of the iceberg. A new or amended constitution must remove the political power of the military, guarantee the rights of all people of Burma, grant autonomy to ethnic nationalities, and resolve land rights issues that are crippling the rural poor. The international community should pressure the Burma government to make significant changes to the constitution, as if this does not happen, Burma’s ongoing reform process could be stalled.

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