Burma’s Ethnic Groups Split Over Constitutional Reform

By Lawi Weng 1 November 2013

The question of what to do about the nation’s military-drafted Constitution is dividing Burma’s ethnic minority groups, with some in favor of completely scrapping the charter and drafting a new one from scratch, while others would like to see the existing Constitution amended.

Saw Than Myint, an ethnic Shan and cofounder of the recently formed Federal Union Party (FUP), which aims to represent the interests of all of Burma’s ethnic minority groups, told The Irrawaddy that his party’s position favored amendments to the current Constitution.

“We need to have a real federal system. To have this, we need to amend the Constitution,” said Saw Than Myint, whose FUP was officially registered as a party this week.

He said any effort to completely scrap the 2008 Constitution risked provoking the ire of Burma’s powerful military, which is constitutionally guaranteed 25 percent of seats in Parliament. Citing the fact that even Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and senior leaders of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have publicly consented to amending the Constitution, Saw Than Myint said making changes to the current charter was the best option.

An alliance of ethnic armed groups known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) is partnering with a coalition of ethnic political groups known as the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) to draft an alternative federalist Constitution, and the team hopes to be able to submit that draft for consideration by December.

Nai Tin Aung, who is joint chairman of the Mon State-based Mon Democracy Party, said that owing to the sheer number of flaws with the current Constitution, it would be better to write an entirely new charter. Thanks to its constitutionally enshrined political role, Burma’s military remained in power despite the installation of a nominally civilian government in 2011, Nai Tin Aung said.

“We should speak out about having a new one [Constitution]. We should not be afraid of the army,” said Nai Tin Aung.

Despite the fissure within the country’s ethnic minority groups, Saw Than Myint insisted that the two camps had the same goal—the creation of a federal Burma—but were approaching that aim via different strategies.

Burma’s President Thein Sein, meanwhile, said in a radio address to the nation that “extreme measures” should be avoided as the country evaluates its Constitution.

“Instead of simply focusing on what we want, we should act objectively with the right intentions to fulfill the wishes of people and try to achieve the possibilities available to us in our current political climate,” he said on Friday.

Thein Sein urged a middle-of-the-road approach to Burma’s ongoing reform process, cautioning against “slow actions that could significantly slow down the democratization process and fast actions that could lead to gaps in the process.”

He continued: “Our society must try to achieve pragmatic results that are more reflective of our current political situation.”

Burma’s main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and a leading member of the influential 88 Generation Peace and Open Society have both indicated their support for amending the existing document. Suu Kyi said on her recent trip to Europe that “the present Constitution must be changed to be a truly democratic one.”

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, said, “If you asked me, do I like the Constitution? I just say I do not like it. But if we look at the current political situation, it is better to amend it. This is best situation.”

A 109-member parliamentary committee was formed in July to review the Constitution. It is expected to present its findings by year’s end.