Why Burma needs a new Constitution

Published on July 29, 2013

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle – July 29, 2013

After years of advocacy efforts, the Burmese government is beginning to act on its 2008 Constitution. The Burmese Parliament, a legislative body which is responsible for constitutional amendment, formed a 109-member committee on July 25 to review the country’s Constitution.

The committee includes lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), along with representatives from the 25 per cent of seats allotted to the military.

The constitutional amendment, among others, is an attempt to address the lingering concerns surrounding two most pressing needs of the country — to remove or modify the clause that prevents Ms Suu Kyi from becoming the country’s President and allowing states to choose their own chief ministers.

I will argue why Burma needs constitutional changes for its own good on two fronts: domestic and international.

Firstly, Burma’s historical problems largely stem from ethnic minorities’ demand for self-determination or autonomy and the opposition to such demand from the Burmese “ultranationalists” or “chauvinists.” During the British rule, Burma was administered separately as “Burma Proper” and “Frontier Areas”.

Guaranteeing equal treatment to all ethnic nationalities was one condition for granting independence to Burma (now Myanmar). The 1947 Constitution contained a constitutional right to secession for states, unless otherwise stated, after 10 years of the country’s independence.

The Union of Burma was established after an agreement was reached with Gen. Aung San for autonomy to the Frontier people. The denial of this political right to the frontier people (who are today called ethnic minorities) has been the fundamental reason behind over six decades of armed conflict in the country.

Amendment to the 2008 Constitution would allow states (ethnic minorities), among others, to choose their own chief ministers, who are currently appointed by the Central leaders. The right to choose their own chief executive will motivate the people to participate in elections, which is one essential tenet of democracy.

More importantly, having a chief minister elected by their own people will be viewed as a beginning towards the quest for federalism, the very cause many people have sacrificed their lives for.

Secondly, a change in the Constitution is necessary for Ms Suu Kyi, Leader of the Opposition party, to be eligible for President. A clause in the 2008 Constitution specifies that anyone whose spouse or children are foreign citizens are ineligible for the post of President.

Ms Suu Kyi, who spent about 15 years of her life under some form of detention, will turn 70 in June 2015. If she is denied a chance in the upcoming presidential election, she will physically be in the declining stage of her life. Since she is willing to work with the military, her former political adversary, leaders of the military-backed USDP and the Burmese people should give her a chance to lead the country she dearly loves.

Though she has recently been criticised for not doing enough in the conflicts in Rakhine and Kachin states, Ms Suu Kyi still remains a leading figure who can bring together people of this multi-ethnic country that has been plagued by decades of distrust and conflicts.

With Burma nearing to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014, it is important for the government and its leadership to show the international community that the country is committed to build a genuine democracy.

In his recent visit to the UK and France, President Sein told his hosts that all political prisoners will be released by year-end and guns will go silent in the near future for the first time in the country’s history.

All these words must become a reality for Burma to gain the trust of the international community. While it is still premature at this stage, gradual improvement of diplomatic relations could eventually lead to the lifting of arms embargo by the European Union and the United States.

As long as Burma has a Constitution that is directly or indirectly controlled by the military, or by any elite pact, the country will remain in the category of a “defective” or “incomplete” democracy.

It is in the interest of Burma to find a compromise similar to the one reached between the government and the NLD before the 2012 byelections which allowed the latter to contest the polls.

While Parliament should be appreciated for taking the initiative to form a Constitution review committee, it must also be understood that the amendment, if materialises, will be a victory for millions of people, including the military.

Making the Constitution more democratic and inclusive is for Burma’s own good. And solving the decades-old minority problems is essential for peace and prosperity.

The writer is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma.

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