Bring Focus Back to Amending Constitution, Say Ethnic Advocates

By Nyein Nyein 22 August 2017

YANGON — Ethnic politicians and rights advocates called for constitutional amendments in response to recent comments from Myanmar Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing that demands for ethnic rights must be handled through legal means.

The army chief made the comments at his first ever meeting with Cardinal Charles Bo, the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Myanmar, on Monday. The pair discussed efforts made for peace, the country’s political transition, and the Tatmadaw’s position on the protection of citizens, including ethnic minorities.

“All matters in connection with ethnic rights will only be through legal procedures. All people living in the country must raise the Myanmar spirit without any ethnocentrism,” Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was quoted as saying in a state-run newspaper on Tuesday.

Politicians and advocates have argued that scrutiny of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution is key when examining existing laws and legal mechanisms.

Sai Kyaw Nyunt, spokesman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) said he feels their “basic rights are not granted in full under the current laws.”

In the Constitution, he said, there are no complete guarantees for ethnic rights.

“We don’t enjoy those rights in full, not even to some extent. The peace process is ongoing and through it we have been working for the amendment of the 2008 Constitution,” he said.

Khon Ja, a coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, shared the same view, saying there is a lack of protection for individuals, groups and ethnic rights.

“If the ethnic rights must be sought through the current laws, which are dominated by the 2008 Constitution, I would say these are at zero,” she said.

Sai Kyaw Nyunt added that it was difficult to have a “Myanmar spirit,” even though people were developing the spirit of living in a collective Union.

The name for the country, Myanmar—designated by the military junta in 1989—has not been accepted by many ethnic nationalities.
“The majority Burmans also need to reflect whether ‘Myanmar’ really is symbolic of something that other ethnicities can accept,” said Dr. Aye Maung, the chairman of Arakan National Party and a Lower House lawmaker from Rakhine State’s Ann Township.

He said non-Burmans’ biggest concern is “losing their identity.”

“Today conflicts have raged as ethnic rights are not given under the term ‘Myanmar,’ and are also not given under the Constitution,” he added.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said, as was posted on his commander-in-chief’s office Facebook page, that the “present armed conflicts” are not directed at ethnic minorities, but toward opposing those groups which in challenge the governments of the Union, regions and self-administrative zones. He noted the example of the army fighting the Burma Communist Party in the past, which was not solely an ethnic entity.

The army’s statement said the Tatmadaw “attacks those who harm life and property of the people” and those who “disturb administrative machinery.”

Through the peace process, including the holding of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference sessions, the government and the military will create a Union peace accord, which specifies that the Constitution will be amended through the Parliament.

The approach to amending the 2008 charter is an alternative path than what National League for Democracy (NLD) representatives and rights advocates have campaigned for in recent years.

The now ruling NLD party advocated for the amendment of the Constitution while they were in opposition, and the movement has faded from the spotlight since the NLD took office one-and-a-half years ago.

Ethnic political advocates say the efforts toward the amendment of the 2008 Constitution must continue.

However, these efforts, according to Khon Ja, “have not only stopped—it has even become dangerous for those who are outspoken about it.”

Parties including the NLD need to fulfill their commitment to amending the Constitution, as they mobilized the public under this promise during their election campaign, echoed Sai Kyaw Nyunt.