Guest Column

Kill the Constitution

By Bamagyi 11 July 2012

Recently, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann met with business leaders in Rangoon to discuss what lawmakers should be doing to help Burma move forward after decades of stagnation. He has also held talks with leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, who were generally positive about their encounter with the powerful ex-general.

It is doubtful, however, that any of Shwe Mann’s recent interlocutors mentioned the one issue that surely stands as the most important if Burma is finally to takes its rightful place as an equal in the community of nations. That issue is the 2008 Constitution—or rather, the need to scrap it in favor of a genuinely democratic charter.

Of course, not everyone really wants to see an end to the status quo. Many of the businessmen who met with Shwe Mann, for instance, were notorious cronies of the former regime who would like nothing more than to see the country follow the well-worn path of past.

With the exception of this handful of excessively privileged individuals, however, everyone else in Burma’s business community knows that the country needs sweeping change, not just a fine-tuning of the established order.

The current government has done some things right. It has allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to travel abroad to shore up international support for Burma’s nascent democratic transition. And by meeting with former political prisoners such as the 88 Generation leaders, it has signaled a major shift in its thinking about political dissent.

But none of this has much meaning, because under Burma’s military-drafted Constitution, the opposition is effectively—and permanently—powerless to challenge the political primacy of the ruling clique.

Many saw the electoral landslide by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in April 1 by-elections as a triumph in the long struggle to restore democratic rule in Burma. But the NLD is still vastly outnumbered in Parliament, and even if it wins a huge majority when the country goes to the polls again in 2015, it will not be able to amend the Constitution without the support of military appointees, who hold 25 percent of seats in the national legislature.

In any case, what Burma needs is not amendments to the current Constitution, but a whole new charter. It will take nothing less than this to begin to tackle the corruption and cronyism that have long been a blight on Burma’s economy.

Only by taking the levers of power out of the hands of ex-army personnel and giving the job of running the country to those who are fully qualified and duly elected to do so can we even begin to realize our potential as a nation. And the only way to put power where it belongs—in the hands of the people—is by completely rewriting the Constitution.

Foreign governments are watching the situation in Burma carefully, waiting for some clear sign that it is ready to absorb the capital and know-how that it will need to make its long-awaited leap into modernity. But if Burma wants to attract this money and technology, it will have to show that it also has something to offer besides easily exploited resources—namely, guarantees that its government will act accountably and with respect for the rule of law.

So far, unfortunately, the signs are not good. While President Thein Sein has made conciliatory moves toward the opposition, he also has a cabinet full of relics of the rotten past, handpicked by former junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who was also the mastermind behind the 2008 Constitution and efforts to foist it on a captive country.

This team does not stand a chance of winning if the 2015 polls are free and fair. So unless the government plans a repeat of the farcical 2010 election, which the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won through vote-rigging and other dirty tricks, the party is heading for another a humiliating defeat like the one it suffered in April.

Many would be happy to see this happen, but even if the USDP is decisively beaten and the NLD does take power, the prospects for the country still look grim. This scenario would set the stage for a protracted period of paralysis, with the NLD unable to enact any new laws because of obstruction from the military camp.

Thein Sein has already made clear that he will not be running for office in 2015, but this does not mean that Burma’s future is not his problem. If he wants to guarantee for himself an honorable place in his country’s history—worthy, some would argue, of a Nobel Peace Prize—he should use all the influence he can muster to rid Burma’s political system of the double deadweight of military hardliners and a deeply undemocratic Constitution.

While it is clear that some of the worst elements of the old regime are still alive and well, both in the cabinet and behind the scenes—the nomination of Myint Swe, a hardliner, to replace the ultra-corrupt and ailing Tin Aung Myint Oo as vice-president has Than Shwe written all over it—Thein Sein and other leaders such as Shwe Mann can still make a difference by parting ways with them and recognizing the need for a new charter.

This may seem like wishful thinking, but at this decisive juncture in Burma’s political evolution, it will take nothing less than leaders of real vision to extricate the country from the trap set by its former rulers. And who better to do this than those who are intimately familiar with the mindset of Burma’s military dead-enders?

Bamagyi is a Rangoon-based political observer. The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.