Is Burma in the midst of constitutional Catch 22?
Share this on

Is Burma in the midst of constitutional Catch 22?

Burma’s seemingly civilian government headed by President U Thein Sein has declared itself as a reformist administration since it took power in March 2011. Now, these claims are being put to the test as it comes under increasing pressure to revise the constitution.

As demands for constitutional amendment increase, the Union Parliament of Myanmar (Burma) accepted a proposal to form a 109-member Joint Committee to Review the 2008 Constitution on July 25 with the intention of examining possible changes. The committee was formed with members of parliament, members of political parties, military MPs and individuals.

However, the ruling USDP party holds 52 seats and military representatives hold 25 seats in the 109-member committee, while seven members of the opposition NLD join 25 members from small ethnic parties. The formation of the committee seems unbalanced since there are 77 pro-military members in the 109-member Joint Committee. As a result, there is widespread expectation that the committee will uphold the undemocratic articles of the 2008 Constitution.

Burma’s current Constitution, approved in a May 2008 referendum, is inundated with false political values. It says the country must be united under one military command. In late July, a three-day Ethnic Conference organized by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) held in Chiang Mai, Thailand unanimously rejected the military-sponsored 2008 constitution after debate. The Ethnic Conference also made a decision to draft a new federal constitution before the end of the year. Some observers have expressed fears that the move could lead to more hostilities between ethnic rebels and government forces.

On August 21, Lt-Gen Yawdserk, the leader of the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), said he agreed with the resolutions passed by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)-led conference in last July, according to Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.).

“They stand for what the people really desire,” Yawdserk told SHAN. “My only criticism is that it is too early to issue such calls, since the most urgent need for the country today is peace and reconciliation.”

“Nobody except for a few likes the 2008 constitution,” Yawdserk said. “But for the sake of peace and reconciliation, what we can do now is its amendment. Not all of it can be amended at present either. So we need to consider what should be amended first.”

Earlier, he told SHAN that the first steps towards national reconciliation process should include: Full autonomy for the states, election of the state chiefs, and the transformation of the Government Army (Tatmadaw) into a federal union armed force. “The country can never become federal until and unless the armed forces become federal first,” Yawdserk said.

In contrast, Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) warned of serious consequences if the 2008 constitution is abolished and redrawn. The nation and its citizens will suffer the consequences, according to an announcement of the party’s Constitution Amendment Committee, Xinhua News reported.

On October 3, the 109-person committee released a statement calling for advice and suggestions from stakeholders on the review or amendment of the 2008 State Constitution. The committee set the deadline for November 15, 2013 for submission of advice and assessment.

Among citizens, there are two different camps, with one side calling for amendment and the other side for total redrawing of the constitution, which is supported mostly by the ethnic political groups.

In the meantime, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) also said through a statement that even though the party had held discussions with counterparts from ethnic minorities on the issue, it has not yet made a resolution on the matter because it decided to listen the people first.

The NLD has been determined to work together with the ethnic parties to get an idea of public opinion on the amendment or redrawing of the constitution. It also said that the results of its research will be submitted to the parliament.

The NLD is once again using its canvassing strategies as exercised in the by-election in April last year, with a firm focus on the restoration of the rule of law, constitutional amendments where the 2008 Constitution does not meet the standard of democracy, especially in completion of equal-shared democracy, lack of creation of equal opportunity for all citizens, and to make changes to the terms that prevent a free and fair election in 2015.

People do not forget that the new charter emerged in the course of a charade referendum (May 2008), cynically held just after the devastating Nargis cyclone that caused more than 138,000 deaths and left millions homeless. The bill was ratified by the parliament in January 2011. The biggest flaw in the constitution is that 25 percent of the seats in the parliament are set aside for soldiers who are basically appointed to the legislative body by the commander-in-chief of the military. Unless this is amended, it is difficult to see true democratic reform for the country.