After years of advocacy efforts, the Myanmar government is beginning to act on
its 2008 constitution.
The parliament formed a 109-member committee on
July 25 to review the country’s constitution.
The committee includes
lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and
President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), along with
representatives from the 25 percent of seats allotted to the
The proposed constitutional amendment, among others, is an
attempt to address the lingering concerns surrounding the two most-pressing
needs of the country – to remove or modify the clause that prevents Aung San Suu
Kyi from becoming president, and allowing states to choose their chief
I will argue why Myanmar needs constitutional changes for its
own good on two fronts: domestic and international.
historical problems largely stem from ethnic minorities’ demand for
self-determination or autonomy and the opposition to such demands from the
During British rule, Burma was
administered separately as “Burma Proper” and “Frontier
Guaranteeing equal treatment to all ethnic nationalities was one
condition for granting independence to Burma (now Myanmar). The 1947
constitution contained a right to secession for states, unless otherwise stated,
after 10 years of the country’s independence The Union of Burma was established
after an agreement was reached with Gen. Aung San for autonomy to the frontier
people. The denial of this political right has been the fundamental reason
behind more than six decades of armed conflicts in the country.
of the 2008 constitution would allow states (ethnic minorities), among others,
to choose their chief ministers, who are currently appointed by the central
leaders. The right to choose their own chief executive will motivate the people
to participate in elections, which is one essential tenet of
More important, having a chief minister elected by their own
people will be viewed as a beginning in the quest for federalism, the very cause
many people have sacrificed their lives for.
Secondly, a change in the
constitution is necessary for Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition party, to be
eligible for president. A clause in the 2008 constitution specifies that anyone
whose spouse or children are foreign citizens are ineligible for the
Suu Kyi, who spent about 15 years of her life in some form of
detention, will be 70 in June 2015. If she is denied a chance in the upcoming
presidential election, she will be in the declining stages of her life when the
next election comes.
Since she is willing to work with the military, her
former political adversary, leaders of the military-backed USDP and the Myanmar
people should give her a chance to lead the country she dearly
Though she has recently been criticized for not doing enough in
the conflicts in Rakhine and Kachin states, Suu Kyi still remains a leading
figure who can bring together people of this multi-ethnic country that has been
plagued by decades of distrust and conflicts.
With Myanmar to assume the
chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, it
is important for the government and its leadership to show the international
community that the country is committed to building a genuine
In his recent visit to the United Kingdom and France,
President Thein Sein told his hosts that all political prisoners will be
released by year-end and guns will go silent in the near future for the first
time in the country’s history.
These words must come to a reality for
Myanmar to gain the trust of the international community. While it is still
premature at this stage, gradual improvement of diplomatic relations could
eventually lead to the lifting of arms embargos by the European Union and the
As long as Myanmar has a constitution that is directly or
indirectly controlled by the military, or by any elite group, the country will
remain a “defective” or “incomplete” democracy.
It is in the interest of
Myanmar to find a compromise similar to the one reached between the government
and the NLD before the 2012 by-elections which allowed the latter to contest the
While the parliament should be applauded for taking the
initiative to form a constitution review committee, it must also be understood
that the amendments, if they materialize, will be a victory for millions of
people, including the military.
Making the constitution more democratic
and inclusive is for Myanmar’s own good. And solving the decades-old minority
problems is essential for peace and prosperity.Nehginpao Kipgen is
general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research and
writing focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a
concentration on Burma/Myanmar.
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