Analysis: Battle lines drawn in Burma’s fight for democracy
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Analysis: Battle lines drawn in Burma’s fight for democracy

Burma’s existing Constitution, approved in a May 2008 referendum, is controversial since it was prearranged by means of subjective legal principles. It says the military commander-in-charge can take sovereign power if the country is in a dangerous situation. In late July last year, 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 serious discussion.

The Ethnic Conference also made a resolution to draft a new constitution based on federalism by the end of the year. Some politicians have expressed worries that the move could bring about more conflict between ethnic rebels and the military.

Ethnic-based political parties in Burma (Myanmar) and ethnic rebel groups negotiating armistice agreements with the government after decades of military conflict have called for amendments that allow self-determination for ethnic citizens.

Speaking while on a trip to Australia in November, Burmese opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi told an audience at the Sydney Opera House that the country had still not “successfully taken the path to reform” because the military-written 2008 constitution bars the country from becoming a democracy.

Trevor Wilson, a visiting fellow at the Department of Political & Social Change, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, said, “Both publicly and privately, Suu Kyi urged Australians and Australian organisations dealing with Myanmar to be aware of policies and practices consistent with responsible, transparent and democratic standards, and not to focus unduly on building relationships with the present undemocratic government and its supporters, including business cronies. She made it clear that she hoped Australia would provide increased support for Myanmar’s democratisation process, as being advocated by the NLD [National League for Democracy], and would have carefully noted reactions to these calls.”

Burmese army Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing holds significant influence on the proposed constitutional reforms considering the constitution reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament for the military. It also requires a 75 percent parliament majority for a charter changes following a nationwide referendum. Suu Kyi insists that a constitution is undemocratic when it can be amended or not amended in line with the will of one man who is in an unelected position.

According to the Nobel Laureate, the measures for making any constitutional change in Burma (Myanmar) were among the most inflexible in the world. Citizens cannot have genuine democracy under such a constitution.

Last month Burma’s ruling party leader was cautioned after speaking out in favour of reform. Thura Shwe Mann, chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), made his remarks during the party’s central committee meeting on December 28.

“Myanmar’s democratic reform attracts attention both locally and internationally. Failure to take correct measures for national unity and national reconciliation can cause difficulties in the reform efforts. That can also harm the process for peace, stability and development, provoking unexpected consequences,” said Shwe Mann, according to news reported by the Eleven Media Group.

The NLD’s chairperson earlier said that the opposition would boycott the next general election unless the Constitution was changed. The NLD refused to take part in the 2010 poll, criticizing the voting as inequitable. The Constitution and election laws unfairly gave privileged to the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the 2010 election through which former general Thein Sein became president.

This time the National League for Democracy (NLD) said that it will contest in the 2015 election though Article 59 (F) of the Constitution blocks party leader Suu Kyi from running for president, a NLD spokespersons told a press conference on December 28.

For the time being, the NLD has already put forward its proposition to revise 168 provisions in the existing Constitution to the parliamentary 109 joint-committee on constitutional review, Nyan Win said. One of the constitutional clauses that the NLD suggested to amend is Article 59 (F) that bars anyone whose spouse or children are overseas citizens from leading the country— a clause widely believed to be targeted at Suu Kyi whose two sons are British citizens.

However, there is discontent among the public with the situation of within NLD. Some old members say that several former USDP followers are joining the party in search of opportunities. According to some pro-NLDs, the main opposition party needs to re-organize its structure of the village and ward-ship levels in order to be tough enough for 2015 general elections.

Suu Kyi has publicly warned party members against in-fighting and jockeying for position that could damage the party ahead of next year’s elections.

But, Burma’s political scenario in 2014 seems more complicated than ever because there will be do-or-die struggles between the ‘pro-2008 Constitution faction’ and ‘anti-2008 Constitution parties’ that is basically connected with the presidential selection in 2015. In addition, there are many more challengers for the presidency office; with rumours putting sitting President U Thein Sein, Lower House Speaker U Thura Shwe Mann, and the military chief Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as the frontrunners.

Amid constitutional barriers, the chances of Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president next year seem very slim. To challenge the presidential position in 2015, she has an uphill battle to change the most restrictive articles of the current constitution. So, 2014 will be a hostile year ahead as the democratic parties have to defend a fierce offensive by the ruling party and its crony alliance that monopolizes the country’s business interests.