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Myanmar’s Future: Poised for Real Democratic Transition?

By Kala Mulqueeny

On Monday, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein washed his hands of aiding constitutional reform that would give an opening for Aung San Suu Kyi to realize her presidential ambitions. "The constitution was written by the approval of the people," he said, according to an ABC interview. "So if the parliament authorizes it and the people agrees for her to become the president, I don't have a say."

In a true democracy, Thein Sein would be correct. Yet, a true democracy—determined by and for Myanmar’s people—is inconsistent with a government still dominated by the military. Lasting reform in Myanmar does need constitutional change.

Across a spectrum of issues, experts took this view, fairly consistently, in a virtual conversation I co-led on the Future of Myanmar for the World Economic Forum (WEF). Suu Kyi and other experts gave briefings at the WEF’s 22nd East Asia Forum, in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in early June.

Since 2010, Myanmar’s reforms have been impressive. The government has released hundreds of political prisoners, shortened blacklists, relaxed press censorship, drafted hundreds of new laws, and held the first elections since 1990. Myanmar appears to be in transition from military rule to fledgling democracy. Yet, the current path is neither linear nor irreversible.

Thein Sein’s government’s current reform agenda is not fully transparent, and as revealed Monday, constitutional reform is not squarely on it. Current reforms have no clear and sequenced program or strategy. Nor has the government revealed a clear path to relinquishing military rule and transitioning to democracy. We should ask why.

One reason is that after decades of governance in the shadows, Myanmar’s reforms will need to be extensive and will take time. Bureaucratic and executive incapacity will inevitably delay and complicate the process: this is happening and what we would expect. However, this doesn’t provide the complete picture.

A second reason is that reforms are limited precisely because they are intended to be that way. Thein Sein may be a true reformer, but many in the military are not, and do not truly want to shift to a civilian democracy. Instead, the military wants to consolidate its existing power-base by removing some of the headaches of ruling-by-force.

Those headaches include very weak economic development and chronic budget deficits. Myanmar has the highest public debt in Asia, and the lowest GDP per capita of all ASEAN countries. One in four people are considered poor. In 2012/13, less than two percent of its budget was spent on education and health combined, while it spent about 20 percent on the military.

Myanmar has also relied on China and Thailand (and to a lesser extent Singapore), for investment and export earnings because of its international isolation. Myanmar’s sense is it hasn’t always got the best side of these deals, and ordinary people show deep-seated dislike of what they perceive as undue Chinese influence. The military government has been taking steps to reengage with the West and ASEAN, to balance China’s influence in Myanmar, reduce their dependence upon this powerful neighbor, and widen its sphere of investment opportunities.

Further, weak economic development, high poverty rates, and a hungry populace are a ticking time bomb for civil unrest, giving the government another reason to think about reform. The 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” gave it a taste of this. Over about a month in August and September 2007, led first by students, women, and opposition politicians, and later joined by Buddhist monks, tens of thousands protested the government’s removal of fuel-price subsidies that led to rapid price hikes in the cost of fuel and corresponding inflation.

What we see is the military government taking limited reform steps by consolidating their power at home and abroad to increase their legitimacy to govern. Lasting reform will require greater depth and breadth of change.

That change needs to address Myanmar’s challenges to economic and democratic development. Of these, Myanmar’s deep-seated and long-standing ethnic conflicts rank at the top of the list. With 135 different ethnic groups, Myanmar has no single ethnic issue. Almost 70 percent of the 60 million people are ethnically Bamar or Burmese. Viewed along religious lines, almost 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, with Christians and Muslims comprising 4 percent each. Underlying all of the ethnic conflicts are two contested visions of Myanmar’s future. First, a Myanmar governed by a Burmese, Buddhist majority. Second, a Myanmar governed under a truly federal system, which affords ethnic groups equality and rights of autonomy and gives member states of Burma rights of self-determination and political autonomy.

The current 2008 Constitution pays lip service to the idea of federalism by notionally establishing regional assemblies. However, these assemblies have no real power because the central government appoints the chief minister, and state legislatures don’t function. To resolve this issue and ensure lasting reform, Myanmar needs constitutional reform to make a federal system workable and give minorities rights.

Other key changes are also needed to the 2008 Constitution. As Suu Kyi has remarked, the Constitution needs to be made “amendable.” Currently, to change the constitution 75 percent of Members of Parliament must vote in favor. Because 25 percent of the members are appointed by the military, this will be hard. Then, a reform must be put to referendum and achieve a 50 percent majority.

The president’s very wide constitutional discretionary power to declare a state of emergency and suspend constitutional human rights also needs to be amended. And restrictions (aimed at Suu Kyi) that prevent potential candidates with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president should be removed. Ultimately, the military’s role in government is inconsistent with democracy. The constitution will need to be changed to make it subject to civilian command. Even with full government backing, it would be hard to agree to all of these changes before the 2015 elections.

Two individuals—President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi—have arguably driven the current reform process. The process will stay fragile until it is embedded in institutions—the constitution being the starting point. We all—business, donors, and tourists—have a role in recognizing the current reform process for what it is and in sharing with Myanmar’s people and its government a hope for what it could become as a genuine democracy. Ultimately, it remains an open question as to whether the military government will be willing to let this happen.

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Kala Mulqueeny is principal counsel at Asian Development Bank, where she leads the Law, Justice, and Development Program. Follow her on Twitter at @Kala2508

The views herein reflect the personal views of the author, and not the institutions with which she is associated.

[Photo courtesy of Stephen Brookes]

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