Will Aung San Suu Kyi succeed in vital constitutional change?

Myanmar’s Foreign Minister? Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012. Htoo Tay Zar/Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar’s current constitution hands significant power to the military junta, holding back moves for democratic reform in key areas of the country’s development. The Lady has called for “brave soldiers” to start the process for change but why would army representatives turn their back on a good deal?

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By Dung Phan

In Myanmar, constitutional changes are vital to boost the country’s transition to democracy. During a recent visit to the United States, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de factor leader admitted that there needs to be more work to shift the government towards civilian rule. “We have a Constitution that is not very democratic because it gives the military a special place in politics,” she said.

As David C. Williams, executive director of the Centre for Constitutional Democracy wrote, “under the constitution, the Tatmadaw (known as Burma’s armed forces) is not subject to civilian government, and it writes its own portfolio. It can do whatever it wants.” But some had started to think of an ongoing process for change when President Htin Kyaw signed legislation on October 4 abolishing a decades-old law, the Emergency Provisions Act, which was used to suppress political dissidents.

However, no one should ever doubt about Suu Kyi’s pragmatism regarding her intention to keep a distance from issues that could cause tension with the military. The repeal, in fact, is not retroactive. Spokesmen for the ruling party and government told Reuters that there are no plans to review convictions of 20 Myanmar Muslims who are serving lengthy prison terms under the law. Although the government agrees that the law now does not fit with the government’s transition to democracy, their refusal to review many of the wrongly convicted cases “raises some serious questions” about their commitment, says Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of campaign group, Fortify Rights.

When Suu Kyi delivered an address at Asia Society in New York on Myanmar’s political and economic development, she conceded that the prospect of amendment needs “at least one brave soldier” who can stand and say ‘I agreed that it should be amended.’ But will it be possible? “I’m sure soldiers are very brave on the battlefield, but when it comes to the legislature they vote as they are ordered to vote,” she added.

A deeply flawed constitution

To consider the case for change, the old regime put Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years and prevented her from seeing her British husband, even when he was dying. The constitution, enacted under the military government, also bars her from taking the office under a clause that anyone whose children were not Myanmar citizens cannot be president.

All in all this constitution heavily favours the military junta, giving it a major national political role with 25% of the seats in parliament and control of three key ministries: defence, home affairs and border affairs. Changes require the approval of more than 75% of all representatives.

The drafted version of the current constitution was only available to the public five weeks before the  referendum on it. In addition, it was published only in Burmese and sold in Rangoon (now known as Yangon) bookstores. A large number of people did not know what it was about, while the few who had been able to study the contents thoroughly were barred from expressing criticism either in public discussions or commentary articles.

The government also banned significant portions of the population from voting on the referendum, including about 500,000 Buddhist monks, a large number of ethnic minority groups which did not agree to a ceasefire, and over a million people leaving the country without the government’s permission.

The worst stroke of this story has to be the ruling generals went ahead with the constitutional referendum in the midst of the devastation brought by Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands and caused thousands more to lose their home. The constitution was then adopted with 92.4% in favour. The Nargis Constitution, as some opposition groups called it, was a triumph of the government which ignored the enormous suffering of its people and urgent calls for aid.

“One brave soldier”

Politically speaking, the ruling military clearly made a calculated move in drafting the current constitution as if the country democratises and moves toward an open economy, they can still expand their wealth and retain their power. In other words, the elected government under Suu Kyi has the flexibility to determine the agenda for socio-economic development and foreign policy but when it comes to key domestic policies to address such issues as the Rohingya, or the peace progress with ethnic groups, the military junta will use their constitutional locks over whatever changes they disagree with. And that is no change at all.