From the Constitution to Religious Freedom: Has Myanmar Achieved Democracy?

By The Irrawaddy 20 September 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, I have a number of things in mind for discussion. The first is military lawmakers’ submission to the Union Parliament of a bill to amend the Constitution. The aim, they said, is to prevent foreign espionage, treason and foreign interference in internal affairs. The current Constitution bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency and we’ll discuss how their proposed amendments intend to bar her from not only the presidency but also ministerial positions. Secondly, Myanmar’s military chief has recently made donations to non-Buddhist religious communities. We will discuss how this move can be interpreted. And on International Day of Democracy on Sunday, a military lawmaker said a true democracy shouldn’t be chaotic. So, I’ll discuss those things with political analyst U Maung Maung Soe and political columnist Ko Wa, also known as Ko Ye Naing Aung. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor, Kyaw Zwa Moe.

As I’ve said, military lawmakers on Tuesday proposed amending the Constitution to bar anyone who has a foreign citizen in their immediate family from becoming a Union minister or chief minister. Why did they do that, Ko Maung Maung Soe?

Maung Maung Soe: It is believed that the [existing] Article 59(f) was created to bar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. Now they have proposed a harsher restriction by attempting to bar her from the Union minister and chief minister positions. It’s fair to say that frictions have grown worse between the Tatmadaw [the Myanmar military] and the NLD [National League for Democracy]. The military has taken steps to strengthen Article 59(f) while the NLD is trying to amend that article, so frictions are increasing.

There’s a Burmese saying: “You can’t even trust your knees, not to mention other people.” So, is it possible to make sure your family members never marry a foreigner? This is a difficult thing to do. There’s also a Burmese saying that if your immediate family members do something wrong, you still have to punish them accordingly. It’s impossible for a person to take full responsibility for their spouse and children. Children, after they reach the age of 18, will control their own fate. There will also be differences in political opinion between you and your spouse. So my view is that [the military’s proposed amendment] is not realistic.

KZM: I also asked for remarks from Shan Nationalities League for Democracy General Secretary U Sai Leik on this proposal. He said he sees such a proposal, which has a specific individual in mind, as a time-wasting challenge to the constitutional reform process, when we should be discussing state-building, state administration and power-sharing between ethnicities. In his assessment, the proposal is intended to disrupt the ongoing constitutional reform process. What is your view, Ko Wa?

Ko Wa: The assumption itself is wrong: that state secrets can leak or the national interest can be harmed because an official has a foreigner in their family. There are laws and regulations in our country. Can’t they prevent [leaks caused by] having a foreigner in your family? In today’s globalized age, the thinking that the country’s sovereignty can be harmed by the fact that you have a foreigner in your family is quite wrong. At a time when international pressure on them is mounting, the Tatmadaw has made a wrong move that will lead the international community to think the military is leaning toward nationalism.

KZM: As the head of the military, what the military chief does matters to the country. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing recently made donations to Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities in Yangon, Mandalay and other places. He has hardly ever done so in the past. What are the motives behind his donations? Some have welcomed it but others are skeptical of his intentions.

MMS: I can’t know the exact reasons behind those donations. I guess he makes donations to counter pressure stemming from the UN fact-finding mission, or to woo non-Buddhist ethnicities in Myanmar or to help realize his political ambitions for 2020.

KZM: You mean presidential ambitions?

MMS: Yes. There are different theories on this. Regardless, it is good if he’s showing respect for the religious freedom of the people. If his donations are not superficial, and if he can convince ethnic people that they have real religious freedom, this is good for everyone.

KZM: KBC [Kachin Baptist Convention] President Dr. Hkalam Samson said that the military chief instructed [his subordinates] to file a complaint against [Samson] after he said during a meeting with [US President] Donald Trump that there is no religious freedom in Myanmar. A week later, the military dropped the complaint. Do you think there were political motives behind this?

MMS: As it all happened within two weeks, we can say the change was abrupt. We don’t know why the military chief changed his mind so abruptly. We should wait and see if he really has changed his mind. Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said in a meeting with Hkalam Samson that he is willing to come to terms with ethnic groups on [the Tatmadaw’s] six-point peace policy. This is the first time he has said this in the nine years since the democratic transition began in Myanmar. Previously, he had repeatedly said that the Tatmadaw will not compromise on its six-point peace policy. As he has now said for the first time that there is space to negotiate the peace policy, we should wait and see if the Tatmadaw’s policies and stances will gradually change.

KZM: Some suggest that Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has presidential ambitions. What is your assessment, Ko Wa? Do you think there is a possibility?

KW: As I have no personal ties with him, it is difficult for me to predict if he has presidential ambitions. But I think it is a good sign that he pays heed to non-Buddhist religious communities. However, it is important to convince the whole country that he does these things out of a genuine willingness [to help]. To convince the people, [the military] must be consistent in its stance. As all these changes have taken place within a few weeks, it is still too early to say if they have really changed their stance. Anyway, it is a good step in principle but we should wait and see how much of it is real.

KZM: Anyway, the complaint against Dr. Samson was dropped. This is good, and Kachin people were happy about it. Another topic is the Tatmadaw’s definition of democracy. International Day of Democracy was observed on Sunday. [President U Win Myint], Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and parliamentary speaker U T Khun delivered speeches. But a military lawmaker’s speech hogged the media and public spotlight. He said [Myanmar’s democracy] can’t be only a nominal and chaotic democracy. He appeared to be referring to the current status of democracy [in Myanmar]. He echoed the Tatmadaw’s call for a disciplined democracy and said that the Tatmadaw must continue its involvement in politics, though the Tatmadaw is under the authority of the government. The Tatmadaw leadership’s views of democracy still differ from those of the people and the government. What is your opinion?

MMS: Yes, the views are different. Myanmar was under military rule and one-party dictatorships for around 50 years, from when the military staged a coup in 1962 until 2010. There was no democracy at all during that period. But today, as Myanmar undergoes a democratic transition, the views of the Tatmadaw and the people about democracy are now totally different. The view of the people is that they haven’t yet enjoyed full democracy. They want a greater degree of democracy. But the Tatmadaw, as it has always been a regimented institution, thinks this democracy is more than enough. Again, [the Tatmadaw] is not familiar with democracy. They say they feel bullied by the majority when it comes to voting in the Parliament.

KZM: They call it democratic bullying.

MMS: Yes, they call it democratic bullying. Democracy is about the minority accepting the decision of the majority, and the majority respecting the opinion of the minority. This is the essence of democracy. Armed oppression against the wishes of the majority is dictatorship. As [the Tatmadaw’s] experiences are different, their understanding [of democracy] is also different. Those differences must continue to be negotiated.

KZM: As Ko Maung Maung Soe said, President U Win Myint said that day that democracy is a system of majority rule with respect for minority rights. [The president] said that Myanmar’s democracy is still a fledgling democracy, and it is important that it not be harmed at this young stage. Again, he said that for democracy to take root, it is important that all citizens do not sit idle, wondering what to do. It was a warning. What did he mean by that? Do we need to exercise extra caution as he said?

KW: We are still undergoing the process of democratization and the foundation for democracy is not yet firm.

KZM: You mean we still have not achieved democracy?

KW: That’s right. We do not yet enjoy full democracy. Under such circumstances, there is a need to strengthen the people’s right to enjoy and practice democracy. It is difficult for me to say why exactly the president said what he did. But to speak to the reality of the country, for Myanmar’s democracy to take root, there are many things the government now performs better and all we need is for the government to take action. To strengthen democracy, political parties must be strong, civil society organizations must be strong. The public needs to be informed in real time and the media needs to be supported. Only by doing this will we be able to avert unexpected threats to democracy.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions!