Myanmar’s Constitutional Reform
January 9, 2014
There was good news last week in Myanmar when President Thein Sein stated his support for changing the nation’s Constitution to allow “any citizen,” including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning democracy advocate, to run for the presidency in the 2015 elections.
Parliament is reviewing a 2008 constitutional provision that bars presidential candidates with close family members “who owe allegiance to a foreign power.” Since Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s sons are British citizens, that provision would prohibit her from entering the race. She and her political allies are threatening to boycott the 2015 elections if she is not allowed to run. They are also demanding constitutional changes that would free Parliament and the judiciary from military control and give the ethnic Chin, Karen and Shan states more autonomy.
Any change in the Constitution requires approval from more than 75 percent of the members of Parliament. However, 25 percent of the seats are reserved for members of the military, giving them veto power. While President Thein Sein’s support for change is helpful, it may not be enough to sway military lawmakers.
Myanmar has made progress on citizens’ rights since the military junta opened the way for democracy in 2011. The travel restrictions on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi — held under house arrest for 15 years — have been lifted, greater freedom of the press has been promised, and Mr. Thein Sein has released some prisoners of conscience, though not all.
Still, more reform is needed to realize Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy. A 1982 law denies citizenship to the Rohingya Muslim minority, native-born Burmese of Indian descent and the foreign-born children of Burmese citizens. A United Nations resolution in November rightly called on Myanmar to grant the Rohingya Muslims citizenship, but the government has rejected that resolution.
Parliament should approve the proposed constitutional reform. And democracy advocates should push Parliament to change the 1982 law to expand citizenship to more Burmese. Without citizenship, these people are denied fundamental rights, including the right to travel freely and the right to vote and to participate in the political process.