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Resumption of the National Convention in Myanmar

Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 16, 2005

    On December 5, 2005, the National Convention reconvened to resume the process of drafting a new Constitution. Without doubt the process of framing a new Constitution for Myanmar has been a long drawn out one. The National Convention, with over 1,000 delegates from various national races and groups, and comparable to a constituent assembly, first began its task in 1993. It last held its meetings between February 17 and March 31, 2005.

    The National Convention, which the military junta reconvened, faces opposition - both domestic and international. At the international level, the opposition was in the form of the Tutu-Havel Report and in the American proposal to the UN Security Council to discuss the problem of political transition in Myanmar. The latter proposal was accepted by the UN Security Council members who agreed to discuss the problem and have the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brief them. This brings Myanmar once again on to the centre stage.

    At the domestic level, there was opposition from ethnic groups when some of its leaders were put under arrest. Eleven political parties issued a statement expressing distrust in the National Convention and sought the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. They reiterated their aspiration or:

    • The establishment of a federal union.
    • Equality among various ethnic groups.
    • The right to self-determination of all ethnic groups.

    Second was the public reaction when the SPDC undertook the relocation of its capital 400 kms north of Yangon to Pyinmana on November 6, almost exactly one month prior to the reconvening of the National Convention. It appears that the government's intention behind this move was to strengthen the military's hold. Meanwhile, the SPDC has declared that the government sponsored social organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) set up in 1993, may soon overtly transform itself into a political party. It claims a membership of 22 million (whereas Myanmar's total population itself is only a little over 50 million). Thus it would be logical to expect this group, modelled on Indonesia's Golkar party, to be a serious contender in any elections in the future.

    The National Convention had held its deliberations between May and July 2004 after a long gap since its suspension in March 1996. Its initial meetings were convened between 1993 and 1996. The National League for Democracy, whose leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest was extended on November 27, continues to boycott the Convention.

    After the National Convention adjourned in July 2004, differences relating to a seven-point proposal presented by the 13 cease-fire groups participating in the Convention on June 9, 2004, surfaced. The proposal had suggested greater power to the states, including control over foreign policy for states sharing international boundaries with other countries, and the right to have separate armed forces. The National Convention Convening Commission rejected these suggestions, as they were not found to be in conformity with the six National Convention objectives and the 104 basic principles. A modus vivendi nonetheless appears to have been worked out under which the authorities agreed to put the proposal on record and the cease-fire groups agreed not to read the proposal at the plenary meeting.

    It may be recalled that Myanmar has had two Constitutions: one promulgated in 1947 and the other in 1974. The Constitution of the "Union of Burma" formulated by the Constituent Assembly in 1947 delineated a quasi-federal union with a centralized Union Government and constituent (ethnic based) States supervised by State Councils. Some States (Shan and Kayah) enjoyed the right to secede after ten years. When General Ne Win captured power in 1962, he demolished the parliamentary democratic structure, suspended the Constitution and installed in its place the Revolutionary Council. The 1974 Constitution, which he put in place, stipulated a unitary State (vide Article 11). Importantly, while Article 22 guarantees the basic rights of all citizens before the law, Article 153b takes away this right by stating that the exercise of such rights must not be "to the detriment of national solidarity and the socialist social order." Needless to add, these provisions are contrary to the provisions of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides for the right of freedom of opinion and expression. Following the 1988 uprising, the military reasserted itself, the Constitution was abrogated and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was established [subsequently replaced in 1997 by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)].

    The latest attempt to frame a new Constitution dates back to 1993 when the National Convention was first convened by SLORC. The National Convention's composition ensured that the military's voice would dominate its deliberations and the Constitution that would finally emerge would consequently ensure a significant place for it in the governance of the country. The NLD participated in the National Convention initially but walked out of it in December 1995. It did not wish to fritter away the legitimacy it had secured in 1990 by participating in a National Convention in which it was only a small constituent. The SLORC had annulled these election results - its contention being that these elections were meant to select representatives for a constitution-drafting body rather than a national assembly. Discussions in the National Convention led to specific chapter headings for the Constitution and the basic principles for each of the chapters. These principles were then approved by the National Convention Convening Commission. Now, based on this consensus, the elected representatives have to draft a new Constitution (with assistance and suggestions from the SPDC). The draft would then be put to a national referendum. In the meantime sovereign power would reside with the SPDC.

    The SPDC is under renewed pressure from the West and ASEAN. It will have to convince the world community about the seriousness with which it is implementing political reforms. It appears intent on going ahead with the seven-point road to democracy. The systematic manner in which the SPDC is proceeding with the National Convention would indicate that it has a set plan in mind. Is it willing to make fundamental changes to that plan to accommodate international pressures for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi? Would the international community and the neighbours especially be prepared to accept the consequences of any disturbance that may follow? Is the neighbourhood ready to accept an influx of refugees if a prolonged civil war ensues? Are there credible and capable institutions within the country which could ensure stability in a post-conflict Myanmar? Answers to these questions would indicate the likely manner in which the political transition might unfold. Be that as it may, the long years of rule by the military has drained other institutions within the country of their strength. To ensure a smooth process of regime transition, a step-by-step approach to democracy, rather than an externally imposed solution, would be a preferred alternative.