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Political Opposition in Burma Must Ignore Distractions and Focus on Policy

By Burma Partnership  •  August 12, 2014

19 May 2014 Teza Hlaing The IrrawaddyThe main opposition party in Burma, the National League for Democracy (NLD), said last week that almost 5 million people signed the petition calling for constitutional reform that did the rounds from 27 May to 19 July. The petition pushed for the removal of the Burma Army’s veto on constitutional change that they have by virtue of Article 436 of the Burma Constitution. This campaign has been widely praised as a shrewd tactical move, because it would in theory unlock the door to amendments of any offending articles of the Burma Constitution that undermine democratic values and infringe upon the fundamental rights of the people. Most notably – though by no means exclusively, as the NLD and others are at pains to stress – amendment of Article 436 will in turn enable amendment of Article 59(f), which in practice bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi running for President in the 2015 elections.

While such a public initiative is to be applauded, and the weight of support for the petition is to be welcomed, the political opposition in Burma must not allow itself to be distracted by such diversionary machinations on the part of the Burma Government and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The NLD is right that constitutional reform is essential to the establishment of genuine democracy in Burma. However, it is also time for the political opposition to test the limited democratic space that now exists in Burma, and time to start outlining a viable policy platform for government. The burden rests with the NLD and other democratic opposition parties to engineer a seismic cultural and political shift: away from politics traditionally centered on personalities and fear, and towards politics based on actual policies that will resolve people’s grievances and promote and protect their political, economic, social and cultural rights.

The people of Burma want to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and democratic opposition win in 2015 and lead them to genuine democratization, and thus they deserve to know what the political opposition plan to do on a whole raft of pressing political issues should they get into office. People want to know how a new government would manage the ongoing peace process; how they would resolve the disturbing bouts of religious violence and other human rights abuses; how they would stem the rising tide of forced land evictions and land grabs; how they would go about introducing institutional reform of the judiciary, the parliament and the military; and what measures they would take to ensure that all economic investment in Burma is socially and environmentally sustainable.

Although doubt as to the sincerity of the recent political reforms is rapidly increasing among the people of Burma, especially in 2014 across social and ethnic lines, there are still enough chinks in the democratic facade for leverage to be applied and opportunities to be seized. If the NLD and other political opposition parties can dictate the policy discourse within Burma in the run-up to next year’s elections, then they will have the Burma Government on the back foot, for neither do the USDP have a coherent, transparent policy platform for the 2015 elections. Furthermore, they will be fulfilling their mandate as political opposition: in fully-fledged democracies, opposition parties are supposed to provide robust criticisms of government policy and present viable policy alternatives.

While it is nothing more than speculation, it is not out of the question that the Burma Government will allow the NLD to occupy themselves with constitutional reform initiatives and petitions right up to the eleventh hour. Then, if it feels under pressure from the international community, the Burma Government could perhaps afford to gamble and amend the Burma Constitution at the last minute, thereby allowing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to run for President, because, at that late stage, with the elections imminent, no one would know what to expect from an NLD administration.

We call upon the NLD and all political opposition parties in Burma to begin determining and presenting viable policies on the most critical issues troubling the people of Burma today, in addition to the existing and valuable work that they are doing to draw attention to the urgent need for structural and constitutional reform in Burma. And we call upon the international community, donors, businesses, and all stakeholders involved in or supporting the current political reforms led by President Thein Sein to start encouraging opposition parties to develop policies in time for the 2015 elections. It is vital that the nascent democratic space expands rather than stagnates or shrinks, and that the people of Burma feel empowered to demand policy proposals from any potential governments that might represent them.

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