‘No Real Democracy’ for Burma if Constitution Goes Unchanged: Suu Kyi

By Lawi Weng 23 September 2013

Burma will not enjoy “real democracy” until the country changes its Constitution, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in a speech to Singapore’s Burmese community during a visit to the city-state Sunday.

Suu Kyi, who is a parliamentarian and chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), spoke in front of more than 5,000 people from Burma, linking constitutional change to the larger fate of the transitioning nation.

“Our country needs to have rule of law and peace, and needs to change the Constitution. If there is no change to the Constitution … it will be difficult to have peace and rule of law. Then, our country will have no real democracy.

“I always say this whenever I meet government officials who were formerly of the military regime. … I tell them that I hope both sides can sit down and make changes to the Constitution.”

On her four-day visit to the fellow Asean member state, Suu Kyi also met Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and served as keynote speaker at a separate lecture series on leadership in Asia that was attended by members of the international community.

Suu Kyi made her trip to Singapore on the return leg of a visit last week to the Czech Republic in Europe, where she met exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and spoke at a conference on “societies in transition.”

Burma has undergone major political and economic reforms since a quasi-civilian government took power from the ruling military regime two-and-a-half years ago. The military-drafted 2008 Constitution, however, remains as an enduring legacy of the former regime with present-day implications for the prospect of democratic governance.

Suu Kyi herself is not eligible to run for Burma’s presidency due to a constitutional provision that bars anyone with a foreign-born spouse or children from running for the office. Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British national, as are her two sons.

The Constitution also guarantees 25 percent of the seats in Parliament to members of the military, and much of the current leadership under the administration of President Thein Sein was plucked from the ranks of the former military regime—including Thein Sein himself, a former general and prime minister.

The opposition NLD, pro-democracy activists and ethnic rebel groups have called for amending or scrapping entirely the 2008 Constitution. It was passed via a public referendum in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis, in what is widely considered to have been a sham vote.

Suu Kyi, who chairs the Lower House of Parliament’s Committee for Rule of Law and Stability, compared Burma’s reform process with other countries’ democratization, saying opposition voices were typically given more influence in guiding the transitions.

“Our Constitution has been written by only a few elected representatives of the people, and most people were from the military dictatorship,” she said. “This is how it has been different from other countries. This needs to change.”

A 109-member parliamentary committee has been formed to study the possibility of changing the Constitution, with representation of the committee identical in proportion to the makeup of the national Parliament as a whole. The NLD has been allotted seven committee seats.

In response to a request that she address the issue of Burmese migrant workers in Singapore, specifically maids, who were unable to attend the event on Sunday, Suu Kyi said they were not forgotten, and called on the government to protect their interests.

“To protect citizens is the duty of government. Every government has a duty to do this. Indonesia and Malaysia protect their citizens. Our country needs to do so as well.”

Burmese migrant workers, who often take jobs in wealthier countries as domestic help, have frequently been victims of abuse by their employers, with human rights groups criticizing Burma’s government for failing to adequately protect them abroad.