Lots of Detours in Burma's Roadmap to Democracy

Constitutions, elections and a multi-party democracy are often welcome news among the international community, but the terms mean little coming from Burma's generals, especially in a new “democratic” process that will likely turn the current junta leader into an all-powerful president.

While the constitution has yet to be completed or made public, exile groups say the “basic principles” that guide it specifically preclude anyone from serving as president who has a spouse, children or spouses of children that are citizens of a foreign country—a rule designed to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to a British academic and has two children who live in the United Kingdom.

In a sign of how secretive the constitution-drafting process has been so far, many people both inside and outside Burma were surprised when the junta announced over the weekend its plan to quickly draft a constitution, put it up for a referendum in May and then hold elections in 2010.

While the move would appear to buy the reclusive junta leader Than Shwe some bargaining power in discussions over international sanctions, it strikes most Burma watchers as ridiculous that the generals who used guns to quell monk-led pro-democracy protests only five months ago could suddenly lead the country on a path of genuine political reform.

"This constitution could have worked before the September uprising last year," said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst. "There were a lot of people ready to give the constitution the benefit of the doubt, no matter how lopsided it was toward military rule. But after the killing of monks everything has changed. Now even those who see the facade of civilian rule as better than nothing are not sure anymore."

The junta initially created the National Convention as a tool to undermine the 1990 elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won nearly 80 percent of the vote. The shocked generals refused to convene Parliament, claiming that the elected representatives would first need to determine the constitution's "basic principles" before taking power.

That farce has dragged on for 18 years now, with the junta intermittently shelving the convention when it can and reviving it when it needs to ease international pressure.

If anything, the junta's announcement provides a light at the end of the tunnel to what has seemed like a never-ending process. But the new constitution hardly promises anything that comes close to reform, and instead may give the current military rule the guise of operating under a set of rules that meets international norms.

India and Asean leaders have already futilely urged the generals to include Aung San Suu Kyi, who has lived under house arrest since 2003, in the constitution-drafting process. China has consistently opposed proposals at the UN Security Council to push for democratic changes in Burma, but in January it supported a statement telling the generals to move faster toward talks with opposition leaders.

"It's a band-aid for the junta," said Win Min, a Burma analyst based in Chiang Mai, of the planned referendum. "They faced pressure from China to give a timetable, and the whole international community has been pressuring them to give a timetable to the UN Security Council. This gives China a way to defend Myanmar, where it wants a stable military government."

The National Convention itself provides a glimpse of what can be expected. Although the junta initially tasked the 1990 election winners with drafting the constitution, they represented only 14 percent of the initial 702 delegates. Over the years the military constantly watered down their participation, so that by 2006 elected MPs comprised only one percent of the 1,081 delegates. Nine political parties representing more than 90 percent of lawmakers elected in 1990 remain excluded from the process.

The convention is dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the junta's shadowy political arm that is expected to dominate any election if and when one takes place. Most of the ethnic and ceasefire groups are not participating.

Moreover, the convention has excluded any debate. The delegates were "virtually under house arrest," UN Special Rapporteur Sergio Pinheiro said in 2004, and they could only speak from pre-approved scripts.

The basic principles of the new constitution are reflective of the military's heavy hand, according to exile groups who have studied them. The junta dictated the 104 basic principles in the charter's first chapter, which will set the tone for the rest of the document. The principles grant the military a place in the legislative and executive branches, allow it to declare a state of emergency virtually at any time and let it operate without parliamentary oversight.

In addition, the so-called "detailed basic principles" give the president tremendous powers. Whoever becomes president will be able to work independently from the legislature and be granted immunity from prosecution. To ensure the constitution cannot be changed, the military has guaranteed itself 25 percent of parliamentary seats, and mandated that any constitutional amendments require 75 percent approval.

"When you introduce any kind of constitution, good or bad, changes are bound to happen," said Aung Naing Oo. "But this change we don't know for sure. No matter how bad it is, if Than Shwe and his cadre of yes-men leave under this constitution, then we will have a new breed of military men taking over, so it might bring change. If Than Shwe goes and hardliners go, then things can be better. But people inside Burma are now talking about a scenario where Than Shwe becomes president. Then it is not only a consolidation of power, but also the continuation of Than Shwe's oppressive rule."

The referendum itself could be a spark that triggers another uprising similar to what happened in September, when the army shot into crowds of protestors led by unarmed monks, killing at least 31. Opposition groups are already organizing a No vote campaign, and many of the same economic hardships that pushed people onto the streets back then still remain today.

"There is a lot of anger and dissent on the streets and people hate the military," said Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy, a Burma-focused newspaper. "I don't know how they will design the referendum to win the hearts and minds of people. We just have to see, but I would be very surprised if people see this as a compromise. I doubt it. The uprising is being crushed, but it's not over yet. The people that desire for change remain undeterred."

Although a vote on the new constitution is expected to take place in May, the draft is still not finished. It's unclear if anyone will be able to read it in time for the vote. More disturbingly, junta order 5/96 mandates 20-year prison terms for anyone who criticizes or even opposes the National Convention, which basically would make No Vote campaigns illegal.

Given this environment, not many people are optimistic about either the referendum or the 2010 election. Some questions remain as to whether the NLD will be allowed to participate at all, as the junta could find legal justification to disband the party at any point. Moreover, many 1988 generation student activists and political leaders remain detained without charge following the September uprising.

"After I saw the announcement of election and a referendum, my first immediate thought was 'How can they hold elections when all the elected people and activists are already in prison?'" said Aung Zaw. "The military might see that it is safe to hold elections because all the 'destructive elements'—as the junta calls them—are in prison."

"Unless there is a very positive gesture to make sure the process for a democratic Burma includes Aung San Suu Kyi and alternative national leaders, then people will just see this as the military's roadmap," he added. "I foresee a lot of instability."