Analysis: Why it’s time to change Burma’s rigid Constitution
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Analysis: Why it’s time to change Burma’s rigid Constitution

By Aung Tun

In early May, Aung San Suu Kyi revealed her frustrations over Burma’s controversial 2008 Constitution and repeated again at the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw this week, calling it: “The world’s most difficult Constitution to amend.”

When her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), reversing its decision to boycott the 2010 elections, decided to enter mainstream politics by participating in the 2012 by-election, it listed amending the constitution as one of its top priorities. Although the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested in that by-election, it has less than eight percent of the total seats in the parliament in the capital, Naypyitaw, and any important amendments to the Constitution (composed of over 450 Articles) requires the approval of at least 75 percent of the members of parliament.

 (READ MORE: Burma’s Suu Kyi repeats wish to become president

In reality, the NLD has no hope of amending it without the support of the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and a parliament in which the military is guaranteed 25% of the seats. Yet now is the time to make it possible because it will be very difficult to have a genuine democratic transition in Burma unless the constitution is amended.  Speaking at the World Economic Forum on Thursday, Suu Kyi said she intends to run for president in the 2015 elections if Burma’s constitution is changed to allow it.

In peace talks last week with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Myikyina, Kachin state in northern Burma, the Kachin leadership consistently demanded political dialogue with the central government to arrange a ceasefire as a step toward a permanent peace agreement. Other ethnic groups such as Karen National Union (KNU), which has already implemented a ceasefire with the government, have also been waiting for political dialogue as a step to permanent peace.

Political dialogue means granting equal political, economic, and social rights to all ethnic groups based on the Panlong Agreement, which was signed by General Aung San, Burma’s independence hero (and Aung San Suu Kyi’s father), and other ethnic leaders less than a year before the country gained its independence from Britain in 1948.  Simply put, the Constitution must be amended to make the Panlong agreement work. Recently, the Kareni Party (also known as Kayah), which has a ceasefire with the central government, announced that it won’t participate in the 2015 elections unless the 2008 Constitution is changed. The ceasefire agreements with the ethnic groups will remain fragile until this happens.

(READ MORE: Burma: New report reveals plight of Kachin women on China border)

So, what are the most pressing changes that need to be made to the Constitution?  The first priority is to change the 75 percent approval requirement for amending the Constitution. Second, the Articles (particularly 96 and 188) that give the central government control over the economy must be changed.  The central government controls almost all the profits obtained from the exploitation of the resources in the ethnic states and it does not distribute them fairly. Third, the constitutional provisions that grant military commanders-in-chief the right to 25 percent of seats in parliament without being elected must also be amended.

The amount at stake makes it difficult to see the amendment of the Constitution in the near future. Will the USDP and the military-appointed parliamentarians support amendments to the constitution that will compromise their power? Nonetheless, parliament recently voted to establish a constitutional review committee, surprisingly initiated by the USDP, to recommend some changes to the Constitution.

International engagement with the once-isolated country has helped a great deal in pressuring the central government to continue the transition to democracy, but a workable program to ensure the country moves forward has not yet been formulated. To formulate that program, concerted international actions are urgently needed. For instance, Thein Sein was recently welcomed in Washington, and Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe crowned his May visit to Burma with the announcement of an attractive aid package of over US$395 million plus debt relief of over US$ 3.7 billion. In addition, the Japanese Prime Minister promised to expand economic cooperation with the former pariah country.

(READ MORE: Race for Burma telecom licenses enters final stretch)

Earlier, Thein Sein made his first European, including Norway, Austria, and Finland, and also toured the Asia Pacific region, including Australia and New Zealand. During this unprecedented tour, the European Union and Australia lifted all economic sanctions except arms sales. Clearly, the Thein Sein administration very much desires direct foreign investment in Burma, thereby hoping to fix the country’s dire unemployment conditions. Thein Sein’s hope will wither unless the Constitution is amended, for without changes to the constitution, the risk to the international community from investing in Burma would remain high, perhaps prohibitively high.

If the USDP and the military do not support amending the Constitution, the public (particularly the ethnic minorities) would conclude that only the Thein Sein administration is interested in peace, and that Naypyidaw’s peace efforts do not represent the views of the USDP and the military. The new chairman of the USDP and the Lower House Speaker, Thura Shwe Mann, is expected to run as a presidential candidate or ‘democratic leader’ in the 2015 election. To win, to really win, Thura Shwe Mann will have to take actions that recognize the people’s desires.

Unless the Constitution is amended (at least two of the three priorities mentioned above), it will be difficult to regard the 2015 election as anything near democratic. Because the playing field is not level, the old, troublesome questions about the Constitution, specifically about the seats guaranteed to the military, will be ever-present. Trust between the people and the ruling party would remain at its dismal levels.

If the Constitution is not amended by the 2015 election, the NLD, other political parties such as National Democratic Forces (NDF), and the ethnic minority parties can easily claim that the USDP and the military are intentionally blocking the country’s development. That would seriously hurt the image of the USDP and the military, and, in the absence of serious action to amend the Constitution, the call for national reconciliation would be seen as mere rhetoric.

Given this cost-benefit consequence, there is no reason for the USDP and the military to oppose amending the Constitution. There is no reason why Thura Shwe Mann should not initiate steps to make this a reality, thereby positioning himself as a reformist leader rather than as a villainous politician. Still, the USDP and the military together control over 75% of the seats in parliament, giving them enormous power under the status quo, and that weighs against the desire for change.  We need to wait and see what action they will take soon in early July and in the near future.

Aung Tun worked as a journalist in Myanmar for several years and he is currently based in Boston in the United States. He can be reached aungtunn@gmail.com