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Are we the people in Burma subjects or citizens?

Aman Ullah
RB Article
April 22, 2015

A subject is someone “under the dominion of a monarch”, says the Oxford English Dictionary.

A citizen however is someone who does have rights. In ancient Greece and Rome that meant some citizens took part in government.

The difference between a citizen and a subject 
A citizen has the right to vote and right to be elected and right to participate in the political life of the state. A subject has neither the right to take part in the political life of the State nor any say in the government.

A subject shall obligatory to abide by the all laws promulgated by those he is subject to and has no say in how they are treated. A citizen has the right to refuse to comply or to actively resist all laws that violate against his fundamental rights.

A subject is raised to believe that government is ultimately in power. A citizen knows that it is himself, and his fellow men that are in power, and he is answerable to none but his own soul.

A citizen has the right to travel and do as they please provided they do not infringe the rights of others. A subject often need permission to travel and can only take what the state says they need with them. A citizen has the right to self-defense but a subject has not, even he has no right to use effective means of defense. The role of a subject in war is most often as cannon fodder, from ancient days to modern.

In short, a citizen has rights, a subject has privileges; a subject does what he is told, but a citizen has the right to be heard.

Are the people in Burma subjects or citizens?
For over 800 years, from 1044 to 1885, the Burmese lived under an absolute monarchy. All legislative, executive and judicial powers were concentrated in the hands of the monarch. Justice was administered by issuing royal commands. As the loyal subject of the kings, the people needed to surrender all their wills at feet of the kings. They had neither rights nor liberties nor a say in the affairs of the state. 

The rule of the Burmese kings came to an end in 1885 when Burma became Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s possession. All the people of Burma were became the subjects of the Her Majesty Queen Victoria. During the colonial rule the British granted some stand of civil rights and liberties; promoted the development of economic welfare; developed communication, education, health and agriculture; introduced political democracy but the colonial state was something that was imposed from above.

The period of Japanese occupation that followed was, in terms of national independence, law and order, continuity of the state and human rights, completely a disaster.

When the British came back to Burma in 1945, they introduced to Burma the rule of law, which was used as a mere tool that expresses the will of the ruler and not of the ruled. Being the colonial subjects of the British, the people had to pass their lives under the yoke of the British colonial power.

On 4 January 1948 the Union of Burma achieved independence. The people of Burma ceased the subjects of British became independent citizens of independent country.

A constitution for this new sovereign independent republic was adopted on 24 September 1947 by a constituent assembly, which was drafted around the same time as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.

The 1947 constitution provided safeguards for fundamental rights. Under this constitution, the people of Burma irrespective of “birth, religion, sex or race” equally enjoyed all the citizenships rights including right to express, right to assemble, right to associations and unions, settle in any part of the Union, to acquire property and to follow any occupation, trade, business or profession”.

The country entertained a competitive political party system and a free press. The Supreme Court was made the guardian of human rights and was given the power to preserve them through issuing directions in the nature of habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, quo warranto and certiorari. No one is master or subject all are citizens. For fourteen years civil society was allowed to flourish.

Being one of the worthy citizens of Burma, the Rohingya Muslim of Arakan also enjoyed the same rights and privileges as the other nationals of Burma regardless of their religious beliefs or ethnic background. Their homes were secure, their roads were safe, their properties were protected and their justices never denied at the court. Their religious lessons were included in the school’s curriculum of their children. They were enfranchised in all the national and local elections of Burma. Their representatives were in the Legislative Assembly, in the Constituent Assembly and in the Parliament. As members of the new Parliament, their representatives took the oath of allegiance to the Union of Burma on the 4th January 1948. Their representatives were appointed as cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries. They had their own political, cultural, social organizations and had their programme in their own language in the official Burma Broadcasting Services (BSS).

However, since 1962 and the advent of military dictatorship, human rights have neither been institutionalized nor protected. The 1974 Constitution failed to afford the judiciary any independence. Although there was a chapter dealing with fundamental freedoms, these freedoms were heavily qualified and contingent upon fundamental duties.

For 50 years, the iron fist did indeed have a strong and direct grip on civil society. The military was in command, either directly or through its surrogate institution, the Burma Socialist Programme Party. The private sector and civil society were under the pervasive ideological and personal control of one dictator -- Senior General Ne Win, who also concurrently served as president and BSPP chairman, and then for two decades under Senior General Than Shwe.

Now, under the administration of President Thein Sein, who came to power in March 2011, which many refer as a "quasi-civilian" administration, Myanmar's return to the extreme autocratic ways of the past seems patently unlikely, barring a national disaster such as internal widespread religious conflict in the heart of the country, that would prompt the imposition of martial law. The freedoms that have been instituted are now so ingrained in the public's mind that their elimination would spur an unwanted uprising.

The present administration, dominated by retired and active duty military who came from the previous military elite, drafted a constitution in 2008 that guaranteed not only military autonomy from civilian command, but also enabled it to play a major role in governance through executive and legislative stipulations.

The successive military regimes in Burma is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. A government or an army is obliged to serve and defend the people. When it wildly and indiscriminately open fires on its own men, women, children, doctors, nurses and monks it can only be regarded as an enemy of the people.

It has been condemned internationally for committing serious human rights abuses including extra-judicial killings, torture, rape, disappearances and forced labour. There is no rule of law. In some ways the Military rule resembles pre-colonial Burma where the king was an autocrat and his power was absolute and all the people were their subjects. Like the Burmese king, the then military junta is lord and master of the life and property of the Burmese subjects.

During pre- colonial period the people of Burma were subjects to the kings, during the colonial period they were subjects to Queen and now under the military regime they have become subjects to the generals. Only for a period of 14 years, during the democratic government, they were able to enjoy as the citizens of the country.

Among all the subjects of the junta the Rohingyas are the worst victims of human rights violations, including denial of citizenship rights, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, education, marriage, religion, forced labour, rape land confiscation, expulsion, destruction of settlements, arbitrary arrest, torture, extra-judicial killing and extortion on daily basis.

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