President Thein Sein has ordered his government to prepare for the possibility of mass protests and violence this year caused by disagreements over constitutional reform. Burma’s military-drafted Constitution is considered undemocratic, and in recent months calls for amending the charter have grown stronger.
In a secret four-point directive issued late last month and obtained by The Irrawaddy, Thein Sein urged his ministers and their deputies to ensure stable conditions ahead of a nationwide census in March and hundreds of planned meetings over the course of the year for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), after Burma assumed chairmanship of the regional bloc this year.
In the Jan. 27 directive entitled “Stability and tranquility of the country” and classified “Top Secret”, the president said he also worried that divisions within Parliament over proposed constitutional amendments could lead to unrest outside the legislature, with the possibility of mass demonstrations and violent political unrest.
“Some discussions can lead to disagreements, if the disagreements cannot be solved in Parliament it will spread to outside of the Parliament [and] there can be demands, riots and violence by groups of people,” the president wrote. “When these cases happen, we will face pressure from local and foreign media on our government.”
He said activists are mobilizing support for their political demands around the country and warned these actions could lead to unrest. “As everyone knows, now there are people who have ideas are opposite to those of the government and they are campaigning in their respective areas and bringing on demands and riots,” the letter said.
In the directive, the president cautioned against following in the footsteps of neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh, which he said had both recently seen violent mobs push for political demands. He urged ministers to learn from these cases and to ensure that similar situations do not unfold in Burma, partly by communicating with the general public about the government’s work.
“[In] Thailand and Bangladesh, groups of people have made lawless demands, violence and coercion. Similar cases can happen in our country,” he wrote. “[W]e need a plan and implement it to ensure the country’s stability, tranquility and rule of law. We need to make it a number one [priority] to make our government a united, strong government that the public relies on and supports”
The president’s directive coincided with an escalating campaign by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to drum up support for constitutional reform. The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader saw tens of thousands people turned out in Chin State and Karen State last month when she traveled to give speeches in support of amendments.
The 2008 Constitution was drafted by Burma’s then military government and is widely considered to be undemocratic, as it gives great political powers to the Burma Army and blocks Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons hold foreign citizenship. The charter reserves a 25 percent quota for military representatives in Parliament. It also grants immunity to members of the former military regime who committed crimes under the junta.
A committee in Parliament has been taken recommendations from members of the public, experts, NGOs, political parties, the military and government departments regarding constitutional reform. Last week, it released a report with the results, showing that most of more than 28,000 responses supported amendments. However, footnotes in the report cited a single petition—signed by more than 100,000 people—rejecting constitutional change.
Suu Kyi said the results should be taken as an endorsement of her calls for changes to the Constitution. On Sunday, more than 500 people gathered at Bo Sein Hman Stadium in Rangoon to call for amendments to the article of the Constitution which makes Suu Kyi ineligible for the presidency. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a political incarnation of former junta, has, however, far dragged its feet in constitutional reforms and looks unwilling to take on Suu Kyi’s suggestions.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said in a reaction that he was unaware of the top secret order issued by President Thein Sein, but he stressed the need for special security measures this year in light of Burma’s Asean chairmanship.
“I don’t know about the secret directive you mention,” he said, before adding, “Every government is responsible for maintaining stability and the rule of law. As a chair of Asean, our Myanmar government will take more care of security and rule of law, because the leaders of the international community will come here quite often. And this is not unusual; any country that hosts international meetings would take such measures.”
In Thailand, ongoing protests against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began in November last year, triggered by a proposed amnesty bill that would have facilitated the return of her elder brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives but turned down by the Senate. At least 10 people have died and more than 570 others have been injured during demonstrations. Still, Thailand held a national election on Sunday without the participation of the main opposition party.
Bangladesh, Burma’s western neighbor, has also seen political tumult recently. The country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted parliamentary polls on Jan. 5 in protest of an election run by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League party. A year of political unrest in this poor and restive South Asian country of 150 million people has left 500 people dead and more than 20,000 injured.