Will Burma’s constitutional crisis crack up its reform?
By Zin Linn
December 1, 2014
The people of Burma have been wishing for a peaceful and flourishing country since the 1948 independence achievement. But unfortunately, the nation’s independence hero General Aung San was assassinated a year ahead of independence. As a result, civil wars throughout the country occurred in the midst of the self-government offered by the British colonial rule.
In fact, General Aung San and the leaders of Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups had guaranteed a genuine federal union of Burma by signing the Panglong Agreement on 12 February, 1947. The historic agreement accepted the representatives of ethnic states to administer their own affairs in areas of economy, judiciary, education, and customs and so on.
However, ten years after independence, Burma was fallen into the hands of military dictators and became a least developed country (LDC) in line with the United Nations’ indicators of the lowest socioeconomic development and the lowest Human Development Index ratings of all countries in the world. In 1988, instability over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the military-backed socialist government led to widespread pro-democracy uprising all over the country known as the 8888 Uprising.
Security forces shot down thousands of protesters, and General Saw Maung launched a coup under the name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. SLORC changed the country's official name from the "Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma" to the "Union of Myanmar" in 1989.
In May 1990, the junta held free elections for the first time since 1962 and Aung San Suu Kyi’s the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 out of a total 489 seats or above 80 percent of the seats. However, the military junta refused to transfer of power and continued to rule the country as SLORC until 1997, and then ruled as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) before its dissolution in March 2011.
Burma’s existing junta-made Constitution, approved in a May 2008 referendum, is conflict-ridden since it was set by way of one-sided endorsed principles. It says the military commander-in-chief can take sovereign power if the country is in a risky situation.
Ethnic-based political parties in Burma (Myanmar) and ethnic rebel groups negotiating nationwide ceasefire agreements with the government after decades of military conflict have called for amendments that allow self-determination for ethnic citizens.
People do not forget that the new charter itself emerged in the course of a charade referendum (May 2008) mockingly held after a week of the Nargis cyclone that caused more than 138,000 deaths and left millions homeless. The bill was ratified by the parliament in January 2011. The biggest flaw in the constitution is the privileged 25 percent of the seats in the parliament are set aside for soldiers who are basically appointed to the legislative body by the commander-in-chief. Unless this is amended, it is difficult to see true democratic reform in the country.
An ethnic outcry said that a nationwide ceasefire agreement without adequate guarantees of political dialogue and monitoring mechanisms is unacceptable. There is a constant demand from the country’s ethnic groups to enjoy equal political, social and economic rights. The Constitution must guarantee the rights of self-determination and of equal representation for every ethnic group in the Parliament.
Recently on 18 November, Lower house Speaker Shwe Mann said the country’s constitution cannot be amended ahead of 2015 elections. It means a clause in the charter barring opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president may not review until 2015 general election is over. But, House Speaker’s announcement was challenge by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party saying he had no power to make such judgment. Shwe Mann is also head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and who declared to contest for the presidency in 2015 polls.
Coincidently, the United States has pressed for more changes in Burma, where political and economic reforms initiated two years ago seem to have stalled. In addition, during his second Burma-trip in mid-November, Obama has told President Thein Sein that the next 2015 election needs to be fair, inclusive and transparent.
But, Burma’s political scenario in last quarter of 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 front-runners.
In such a tough time, government army’s artillery shell killed 23 cadets at a training centre on the outer reaches of Laiza, the Kachin Independence Army capital on China –Burma border on 19 November 2014. It was the deadliest hit since a ceasefire agreement in 2011, General Gun Maw, the KIA's second-in-command said. Gun Maw said government's artillery attacks were warning of pressure towards the KIA to sign a ceasefire agreement without promise of political talks and to put off the elections.
Speaking while on a trip to Australia in last year 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.
Burma’s main opposition NLD party led by Aung San Suu Kyi has called, during recent nationwide campaign, for public support for her party’s proposal to ratify constitutional reform particularly for Article 436. Aung San Suu Kyi has called again and again that Article 436 barred to amend every article of the 2008 Constitution. It says every amendment proposal must be approved by 75 percent of representatives in both houses of parliament. As the military holds 25 percent of all seats, it effectively holds veto power over the Constitution, she says.
Aung San Suu Kyi has affirmed her readiness to run for president if the Constitution is amended to allow her to do so. Suu Kyi said it is her duty as leader of her National League for Democracy to be willing to take the executive office if that is what the people want. She said a clause in the constitution effectively barring her from the job is one of several clauses her party seeks to change.
Burma’s seemingly civilian government headed by President Thein Sein has declared itself as a reformist administration since it took power in March 2011. Finally, it has to meet head-on major challenge in order to show its true mind-set concerning constitutional revision which has been calling by various oppositions.