Italy Supports Burma’s Constitutional Reform

By Roberto Tofani 25 October 2013

ROME — Ahead of a meeting with Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi over the weekend, Italy’s foreign minister has called on Burma to consider constitutional amendments by 2015.

“Democracy is a complicated exercise and a very demanding institution,” Foreign Minister Emma Bonino told her Burmese counterpart, Wunna Maung Lwin, during a conference in Rome on Wednesday. “Democracy is a process that we also have to improve on, and that cannot be taken for granted. It can go forward and it can go backward.”

The Italian and Burmese foreign ministers were attending a conference about investment, economic growth and development opportunities in Burma. The conference—promoted by the Italian government and organized in part by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—came during Suu Kyi’s visit to Europe to accept a human rights prize.

Suu Kyi on Monday urged Europe and the United States to press Burma to reform the Constitution, which bars her from becoming president. On Tuesday, the democracy icon traveled to the European Parliament in France to receive the Sakharov human rights prize, which she was awarded in 1990 but could not accept at the time.

The Burmese foreign minister told diplomats and businesspeople at the conference in Rome that Burma was drafting new laws that permitted freedom of association and expression “for the benefit of the people.”

“A joint committee has been formed to review the Constitution,” Wunna Maung Lwin added. “Revisions need to be approved by the Parliament.”

He also told The Irrawaddy that Burma’s army was an important political institution in the country and had been important since independence.

The 2008 Constitution, drafted by the former military regime, reserves 25 percent of seats in Parliament for military representatives. A 109-person committee was formed by lawmakers earlier this year to consider possible amendments.

Also at the conference were a number of Italian entrepreneurs, including Paolo Scaroni, chief executive of the energy company Eni, as well as Paolo Zegna of Confindustria, the confederation of Italian industries.

The event was organized to “further cooperation and economic ties between Italy and Myanmar [Burma],” Italy’s Bonino said.

Burma is re-engaging with the West amid a transition from nearly half a century of military rule, and the European Union earlier this year lifted economic sanctions against the former Southeast Asian pariah state.

However, the OECD, one of the conference organizers, published a report that offered a reminder of Burma’s long history of human rights violations, associated with military rule and armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas.

The director general of Burma’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) acknowledged these conflicts but said that the country had entered a “new economic climate.”

Aung Naing Oo said investment opportunities could be threatened by “unstable macroeconomic indicators, the infant stage of democracy and internal conflicts in some areas.”

“We can say the situation related to the conflicts has improved in recent months,” he told The Irrawaddy, saying he was optimistic that all ceasefire agreements, including with Kachin rebels in north Burma, would be finalized by the end of the year.

It seems that ongoing instability has done little to deter Italian businesses from exploring possible opportunities in Burma. Businesspeople at the conference seemed eager to understand ways to invest in the new frontier market, with Aung Naing Oo highlighting potential in the electricity, oil and gas sectors.

Italian investments in the country are limited. According to the Italian Foreign Ministry, exports to Burma reached their highest level in 2012 at 23.7 million euros (US$32 million), 69 percent more compared to exports in 2011. Italy’s imports from Burma were limited at 11.7 million euros, an increase of about 111 percent.

Among the main Italian ventures in Burma is Eni’s involvement in the oil and gas sector. The Italian energy company will explore two onshore blocks and is awaiting the results of a competitive bid to explore two offshore blocks.

“For small and medium-sized companies, it is important to plant the seeds for the future, especially with one eye on the geographic location of Myanmar, a crossroads both to India and China, and to other countries in Southeast Asia,” Zegna of Confindustria told The Irrawaddy. “It is a potential market to over 2.4 billion consumers.”

On Sunday Suu Kyi will arrive in Rome to meet Bonino and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. Her Italian tour will finish in Turin, after visits to Bologna and Parma for official meetings.