Change in Burma?

The Burmese government has recently announced a number of political changes that have caught the attention of the international community. It has announced that a new constitution will soon be completed in time for a nation-wide referendum in May. More dramatically, the government has announced that “it is now time to change from military rule to a people’s democracy. There will be a multi-party general election in 2010 under the new constitution.”

Opposition groups inside and outside of the country have largely rejected the regime’s announcement as business as usual. The government presents itself as a regime that plays by the rules (even if it creates the rules) and believes it has no reason to compromise with the opposition. The opposition, meanwhile, is caught uneasily between rejecting the government’s rules and pushing for a different rule-based political and economic system.

Notwithstanding the Burmese government’s poor track record, its recent statement should not be summarily dismissed. The government is preparing for change. This change may not necessarily be good, and it may not be positive. But something is happening inside Burma, and both the international community and the Burmese opposition must come up with a response.

Is It Reform?

It is easier to evaluate what the Burmese government’s proposed constitution would not look like than what it likely would contain. The three greatest necessities for Burma now are: power-sharing among distinct groups, decentralization, and the separation of powers. But these are precisely the three things that the Burmese government has made clear will not be in the constitution.

Power sharing is important, but more important is how this power is to be shared. Burma’s ethnic nationalities, with their specific cultural traditions including distinct languages, have historically been independent peoples. Over time, they have adopted systems that suit their cultures and traditions. If these peoples are to live in a country called the “Union of Myanmar,” there must be a realistic recognition of their autonomous status and their right to take part in the affairs of the state as equal participants.

The principles laid down by the National Convention and represented in the government’s current constitutional draft continue to perpetuate a tried and failed federal system. Any new constitution must grant the seven member units of the “Union of Myanmar” equal status. Also, these units – and any other self-administered areas – should be responsible for the selection of representatives for the upper house of the legislative body. This upper house should also have sufficient independence to represent the interests of ethnic nationalities. Otherwise, such a union will be unworkable. Unfortunately, the government does not seem interested in establishing a true federal system or investing real authority in the legislature.

Decentralization is also important to any peaceful and lasting state structure in Burma. However, the government has rejected the idea that member states of the union can have constitutions of their own. On the contrary, the government has ensured that members of the “State Executive and Judicial Departments” will be responsible to the “Union President” and not to the citizens of the state. This approach to the establishment of a “Union of Myanmar” promises only more conflicts between the ruling ethnic group and the other ethnic nationalities who are determined to exercise their right to govern themselves.

The government’s choice to go with a presidential system seems appropriate given the situation in Burma where respect for and recognition of diversity must be balanced with a vital need for unity. Ideally, the president of the union should be someone who can bring the nation together regardless of ethnic or religious background. For that, the president of the union should be someone who would feel accountable to the whole society. And presidential power must be contained by checks and balances to ensure accountability. However, the Burmese government has crafted a constitution in which the legislature would not be able to balance the power of the president and the president would be able to dominate the judiciary.

Perhaps most importantly, the role of the armed forces – the Tatmadaw – in the constitution is a major concern to many people in and outside of Burma. The government appears to understand that a country is best governed by a civilian government elected by the will of the people and that the role of the armed forces should only be to protect the country from foreign enemies. The dignity of the Tamadaw would be best preserved if it is entirely removed from governmental affairs. However, in the government’s current constitutional draft the Tatmadaw will not only have substantial power in the legislature but will also have complete control over matters such as security, defense, border affairs, and the Tatmadaw itself. This does not look like a civilian government.

The Burmese government’s approach – which involves the National Convention, the constitutional drafting, a referendum, and elections in 2010 – does not seem to promise the people of Burma the future they have long been anticipating, which is a genuinely peaceful union. And peace requires participation. People cannot be forced into a democracy not of their own making. The people of Burma will not participate as long as they are under attack, militarily and otherwise. They cannot participate in a transition if they remain as refugees in Thailand. A democratic transition cannot proceed as long as there is a war against Burma’s minorities.

Responding to the Government

At this stage, there are at least two possible responses to the government approach: a political response inside the country and a humanitarian response from outside.

Inside the country, the opposition has to come up to speed on key political questions such as democratic structure (federalism, constitutionalism) and economic reform. Being simply an opposition movement will no longer be sufficient. Also, debates about conflicting ideas should be encouraged between the government and the opposition as well as among diverse groups of the opposition.

With respect to the humanitarian crisis in and around Burma, speed is of the essence. Humanitarian responses should also correspond with the political response. Specific issues such as the ever-increasing number of refugees, internally displaced persons, and illegal migrant workers on the one hand, and the dangerously deteriorating state of education and public health on the other hand, should be discussed as immediate matters of public concern. All parties involved should ensure that humanitarian issues are not brought up merely to discredit the Burmese government but rather to benefit the entire nation.

It is important that any analysis addresses both the political process and the humanitarian crisis. An either-or approach is divisive. The conflict between opposition groups and the Burmese government is not merely political. There must be talks about a nation-wide ceasefire and systematic and gradual withdrawals of government troops from the respective states of ethnic minorities so that civilians can go back to their villages and go about their lives. There must be discussions about clearing landmines if villagers are to go back to their villages in current war zones. All these issues should be addressed in detail. If the discussion or negotiation stalls, the talks must persevere. But all parties at least have to try both approaches with open-mindedness, and again, a sense of cooperation.

Naw May Oo, a former Karen refugee from Burma, is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). She is currently working on a Ph.D in law and social science at Indiana University School of Law and is a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies (CCDPS).