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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 4, 2007
Myanmar back on a roadmap to nowhere
By Bertil Lintner

CHIANG MAI - With the opposition subdued and the authorities vigorously hunting down the organizers of the September demonstrations - and the international community held at bay with promises of more ineffectual talks mediated by United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari - Myanmar's ruling junta has put back on track its so-called "Seven-point Road Map" which it says will lead the country towards "national reconsolidation".

A newly formed 54-member State Constitution Drafting

Commission was set to meet on Monday for the first time to "coordinate matters relating to the drafting of a new state constitution", according to a recent article in the state mouthpiece newspaper The New Light on Myanmar. That is supposed to represent the third step on the Road Map - but a closer look at the proceedings shows clearly that they are not a blueprint for democratic reform, but rather a plan to make military rule constitutional.

After general elections were held in May 1990, the junta suddenly - and to the dismay of many - announced that it would not convene the democratically elected 485-member Pyithu Hluttaw, or National Assembly, but rather planned to launch a "National Convention" entrusted with drafting a new constitution. For three years nothing happened, but in 1993 the convention was eventually in session. It was suspended in 1996, after the National League for Democracy (NLD) - which had won a landslide victory in the 1990 election - walked out, branding the process a sham and a farce.

In August 2003, intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt was appointed prime minister, and shortly afterwards he launched his seven point Road Map plan, which survived his ouster on corruption charges a year later. According to official documents from Yangon, the first step of the plan was "reconvening the National Convention", which had been adjourned since 1996. When that was done, however, of the 1,080 delegates only about a dozen were actually elected by the people in 1990.

About 200 represented former rebel groups that had entered into ceasefire agreements with the government, and the rest, or more than 800, were handpicked by the military to represent "workers", "peasants" and other social groups. Despite the breadth of the convention, no serious discussions were allowed. The delegates were required to sit in their national costumes and listen to endless speeches by military officers. One of the few who dared to raise any important issues, and suggest some new clauses to the draft that the military had prepared, was Hkun Htun Oo, leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, SNLD.

The party had emerged as the second biggest in the country after the National League for Democracy, capturing 23 seats in the never-to-be-convened National Assembly. The NLD got 392 seats, while the military-sponsored National Unity Party had won in only 10 constituencies. On February 9, 2005, Hkun Htun Oo was arrested along with 30 other Shan leaders, charged with "defamation of the state" - and sentenced to 93 years' imprisonment. Sai Noot, the SNLD general secretary, was sentenced to 85 years on a similar charge, while the rest received 75-year sentences.

The National Convention wound up in September, ending step two on the Road Map: "After the successful holding of the National Convention, step by step implementation of the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and discipline-flourishing democratic system." The third step now underway will be the "drafting of a new constitution in accordance with the basic principles laid down by the National Convention."

Little is known of those basic principles, as to date they have never been made public. But gleaning from occasional announcements in the government-controlled media, the following appear to be some of the parameters:

  • The president of the country must have at least 10 years of military service.
  • Establishment of a bicameral system with an indirectly elected Upper House and a Lower House, which in theory will be elected by universal suffrage. However, 25% of seats in both houses will be filled by non-elected military officials.
  • The minister of defense and the minister of border areas development will be appointed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, not by the parliament or the prime minister.
  • In case of emergency the military will have the constitutional right to seize power and that seizure should be considered legitimate.

    Legal experts familiar with certain provisions of the draft have said it is not based on basic democratic principles. However it is clearly designed to bar NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding any office in a future Myanmar. The draft constitution stipulates that a member of the assemblies should have no connection with any foreign government, or children who are not Myanmar citizens. Suu Kyi is a Myanmar citizen who was married to a recently deceased British citizen and her two sons Alexander and Kim Aris, who were stripped of their Myanmar citizenship in 1989 and have since become British nationals.

    Democratic missteps
    It is still uncertain how long the Road Map's step three will take, but given that the first two steps took 14 years to complete, it seems evident that the junta is in no hurry to implement even its own version of what it has referred to as "disciplined democracy", which to most others is synonymous with a continuation of military rule dressed up as democracy. When the draft constitution is finally finalized, step four states that the charter will be "adopted" through a "national referendum".

    There seems little chance that regardless of what the charter says that it won't be adopted. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation on October 18, 2006, Tun Aung Chain, an alternate chairman of the National Convention, was asked what kind of referendum it will be, he said: "In my opinion, it may be like the one in 1973, a referendum by voting."

    That was a telling reply: In December 1973 - when Myanmar was still ruled by General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) - a referendum on a new constitution was held, but the voting hardly met any acceptable democratic standards. Due to various polling irregularities, including a lack of privacy for voters which allowed supervising authorities to easily see whether they case a "yes" or "no" vote, it was hardly surprising that 90.19% approved that constitution. It was promulgated on January 3, 1974, and abolished when the military stepped in to assume direct state power after crushing a nationwide uprising for democracy in September 1988.

    Assuming as some analysts do that the referendum on a new constitution will be held some time next year, step five would follow: "Holding of free and fair elections for the legislative elections according to the new constitution." This would in theory lead to step six: "Convening of hluttaws [legislative assemblies]," and then the final step seven: "Building of a modern, developed and democratic nation by the state leaders elected by the hluttaw, and the government and other central organs formed by the hluttaw."

    The roadmap has so far and could still take ages to travel as long as the military continues to control all organs of the state while the so-called nation-building exercise is in process. And, if anyone - Buddhist monks marching down the streets, students demonstrating for democracy, or ethnic leaders demanding their rights - challenge the new order in the making, the military will have the constitutional right to resume direct power.

    This is definitely not what Myanmar's people expected when they went to the polls in May 1990. And it is highly unlikely that the international community - other than Myanmar's allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, and perhaps India - would accept the final goal of the Road Map as something even vaguely resembling a truly democratic system.

    On the other hand, it is still possible that there will be another popular uprising similar to this year's protests before the military junta even gets to step five on it Road Map. Discontent is simmering all over the country as protestors are harassed and arrested - and many Myanmar citizens say they feel that it is now or never to push for political change. They realize that once the junta's new constitution is in place - and the international community and media lose interest in the story - it will be that much harder to put an end to military rule because which the new charter is specifically designed to perpetuate.

    Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

    (Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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