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A time to fight back for citizens’ rights

By Zin Linn
January 9, 2014

It is predictable that the Union of Burma or Myanmar is at a crossroads in the course of this politically complicated year. People consider that there will be a very big struggle among factions for political power in 2014 ahead of general elections next year. The foremost challenge will be a big battle for constitutional changes especially on presidential qualifications as citizens’ rights.

President U Thein Sein has spoken in support of the constitutional amendments that could bring about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy, fitting qualified for the presidency. In a regular monthly televised public talk on 2 January, President U Thein Sein said he sought after the exclusion of all limitations that prohibit any Myanmar voter from taking office. 

U Thein Sein also said that amending the constitution may help getting national reconciliation. Although the constitutional changes have been broadly supported by the public, attitude has been at odds between old-school political parties and pro-democracy parties on revising Article 59(f).

On 3 January, over fifty citizens took to the streets in Yangon in opposition to some articles concerning the presidential qualifications put in the 2008 Constitution. The protestors were holding placard reading ‘No More Sections 59 (d) and (f)’ that proclaim presidential candidates must have knowledge of military experiences. The protestors said such articles may not be acknowledged as people's opinion. 

Article 59 (f) of the constitution restricts Myanmar citizens married to foreigners, or who have children holding foreign citizenship, to be inappropriate for president. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British subject and her two sons are British citizens. According to President U Thein Sein, the constitutional changes need to be made with reflection of democratic values, but national interests must be regarded as main concern. 

Aung San Suu Kyi said that all parties in Myanmar, not just parliament, should make efforts to amend the country’s constitution, warning that the current charter cannot ensure credible elections in 2015, according to Radio Free Asia (Myanmar Service). She also urged Myanmar citizens inside and outside of the country to make efforts amending the constitution.

When looking back into July 2012, President U Thein Sein who is also Chairman of Union Peace-making Central Committee delivered a speech at first meeting of the Central Committee in the meeting-hall of the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, according to state-run newspapers.

In his speech, President underscored the ‘Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizens’. As every national race owns the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, equitable treatment and opportunities should be granted, he emphasized.

During the meeting, U Thein Sein said that since his government was formed with people’s representatives elected by the people, it was obliged to implement the will of the majority people. To convert the old system to the new one is the people’s desire, he said.

He also said that transforming of the old system into the new one is practical change, rather than that on papers. Moreover political and economic changes must be carried out as foundation of the country.

Even U Thein Sein unusually said in his address, “Rule of law should prevail in all political reforms.”

Continuous armed ethnic clashes hinder economic development and spreading armed ethnic groups weaken the rule of law, he said.

“The foundation for building the nation is end of ethnic armed groups and conflicts,” the President highlighted.

It was noteworthy that the President deemed firm political reforms were compulsory for the success of economic reforms.

“And the end of ethnic conflicts is also needed for firm political reforms. It is needed to ease ethnic conflicts and distribute political and economic opportunities equitably,” he said.

To carry out political and economic reforms, ease of ethnic conflicts needs to be considered. Only when such reforms are carried out, national reconciliation will be achieved and ethnic conflicts will be ended, U Thein Sein said during the meeting of Peace-making Central Committee in July 2012. 

However, U Thein Sein said easily about national reconciliation and done the affair fruitlessly. The fact is that many of his cabinet members as well as bureaucrats in every level do not make a concerted effort in favor of good and clean governance.

During his speech at Union Peace-making Central Committee meeting, he pointed out a paragraph from the constitution. Section 348 in Chapter (8) Citizen, Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizens of the 2008 constitution prescribes, “The Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth.” And Section 347 also goes, “The Union shall guarantee any person to enjoy equal rights before the law and shall equally provide legal protection.”

On the contrary, various ethnic leaders declared that they don’t have faith in the new 2008 constitution made unilaterally by the previous junta without any public consent. They consider that it will not produce a genuine federal union and will not allow equal political and economic rights to ethnic people in the future. For example, although there are public complaints, the government armed forces seize 25 percent seats in the existing parliament. It shows clearly that there are no equal rights as the President mentioned in his speeches.

Most people in Burma/Myanmar understand very well about the ‘U Thein Sein government’. According to some ordinary citizens, this existing government is similar to a snake which changed its outfit pretending to be representation of the people by means of charade polls in November 2010 voting.

The regime’s attempt to rename itself with a nominally civilian government was met with skepticism at home and abroad because of unfair articles in the 2008 Constitution drawn by the military. Many critics have doubts about the change that the military’s power has merely shifted behind the curtain.

The country’s strongman U Than Shwe also handed over his position as head of the soldiers during the power transfer, but many analysts firmly believe former Senior-General will find a way to hold on to power behind the political stage. 

As a result, to open the way of equal political rights for every citizen with erasing the Article 59 (f) of the constitution may not happen simply as some politicians imagine. People should not stop thinking about the sitting President U Thein Sein who acted as country’s former Prime Minister and a key collaborator of U Than Shwe. Both men have taken charge of drawing the current problematic constitution. U Thein Sein is among a selection of generals who threw away their military uniforms to maintain power on behalf of the military via the sham elections and is now at the helm of the country.

Thus, do not think simply to amend the controversial charter under the rule of military-backed President who has to be loyal to his senior mentor. If the people overlook the unity of the powerless, they may not win to change the undemocratic articles of the current constitution. Then citizens’ rights seem to be dismissed by the old-school ruling party headed by the previous military elites who stay behind the curtain. Only the unity of the citizens can change the one-sided charter into a democratic one.

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