January 21, 2020
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An Undemocratic Transition


Aung San Suu Kyi speaks out against Myanmar’s flawed political process

Aung San Suu Kyi cut to the core of the doublespeak that passes for Myanmar government political and economic reform to challenge the naypyitaw government at a human rights and democracy forum on a visit to europe recently.

Myanmar opposition leader and chairperson of the main opposition national League for Democracy, Suu Kyi, marked her first visit to the Czech Republic as the keynote speaker of the Forum 2000 Conference, which officially opened on September 15, with an attack on the much-heralded democratic and economic reform process underway in her country.

Suu Kyi has tended to be restrained in her public criticisms of President Thein Sein’s political and economic reforms when she is in Myanmar. But, as her comments in this forum abroad make clear, she feels less inhibited away from home. She is also inclined to continue to use the name “Burma” to refer to her country, which was changed to “Myanmar” by the previous military regime.

“Burma needs to change its Constitution as fast as possible to put the country firmly on the path to democracy,” the nobel Peace Prize winner told the forum in Prague. “We need to amend the present Constitution that we may truly become a democratic country. This constitution is anti-democratic.”

Suu Kyi did not mince words in her condemnation of the process launched by the former military regime to come in from the cold over the last three years.

As she stressed, Myanmar’s transition was not a process of participatory democracy, unlike the changes seen two decades ago in Poland and Czechoslovakia – now the Czech and Slovak republics.

“We have to face much more complex problems, because of our ethnic situation, because of the fact that our transition is not one that was negotiated between the democratic forces and the military regime. This is a transition which is tailored and implemented by the regime, in the same way the Constitution was drafted and adopted by the regime, not by representatives of the people. So our situation is a lot more difficult than yours was more than 20 years back,” she said, referring to changes that took place in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Myanmar is moving rapidly towards a general election in 2015 but the system is stacked in favor of the military, which still holds the reins of power.

“We need to be conscious of the urgency to amend the Constitution which is under consideration in the legislature,” she said, adding that it needs to be amended “if we want Burma to be a peaceful, united democracy.”

The crux of the problem is the Constitution, stacked in favor of the military and the status quo. “This does not meet the needs of the ethnic nationalities, the democracy problem will not be solved by this Constitution,” she said.

A process is underway to consider changes to the Constitution but the opposition leader fears making radical changes to the political landscape will be a tough call.

Suu Kyi is currently barred from becoming president, should her party with the 2015 elections. The current Constitution includes an article – allegedly written to specifically block her – that says those with spouses or children who are foreign nationals are barred from the presidency.

Just as worrying, according to the opposition leader, is the stranglehold the Myanmar military has over the parliament and the running of government.

“Amending this Constitution itself is so utterly undemocratic that I think it would be difficult for anybody to speak up for it. For example, to start the amendment and get the amendment going you need more than 75 percent of the members of the legislature, more than 75 percent, and 25 percent of the legislature are nominated military men, nominated by the commander-in-chief, and he can change those people at any time he pleases. They are not nominated for the life of any one parliament. So in effect the commander-in-chief alone can decide whether the Constitution can be amended. now is it democratic in a country of an estimated 60 million, [that] one man alone is in a position to decide whether the constitution can be changed in a way we would like it to be changed?” she asked.

Suu Kyi told the forum she did not want to detail the provisions in the Constitution, written by the military, which make it “undemocratic,” but “the very provision for amendment makes it quite clear that we are not heading for a genuine democratic society. So we need this changed and we need it changed as soon as possible.”

Suu Kyi is aware that as she goes off for trips abroad, the democratic and economic reform process is hostage to a government with little to be gained from making significant change.

Time is of the essence. “The committee for the reassessment of the Constitution will be filing its report by the end of this year. So before the end of this year, we in Burma are working hard – when I say we, I mean the national League for Democracy, and our allied ethnic nationality parties - are working hard to come out with a joint statement with regard to the need for amendment of the Constitution.”

She said they need to follow through on this process, noting that people in her country have a saying that if you are going to see somebody off, you need to take them right to the harbor, not drop them halfway.

The 68-year-old prodemocracy advocate spent nearly 15 years, until november 2010, restricted to her home. She won the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and was awarded the nobel Peace Prize in 1991, while under house arrest, for her peaceful and non-violent struggle under a military dictatorship.

With all the hype over the opening up and loosening of restrictions in Myanmar, it is easy for observers to believe real democratic change is underway, particularly as the mainstream Western media has tended to run with this theme. But the reforms in many way are a façade pursued by the military to remain in power and avoid being taken to task for their decades of authoritarian rule that included extrajudicial killings, jailing, torture, forced labor, and vicious military actions in the ethnic states.

The atmosphere on the street may have improved dramatically over the last three years since the 2010 elections, with the public feeling freer to speak their mind. But there are many critics and commentators, speaking publicly, who recognize that real democratic reform is not underway.

Khin Maung Swe, leader of the national Democratic Force, told the Business Magazine that the current series of political reforms pursued by the by reformminded senior government officials still don’t impact the grassroots in the country. Current reforms of this quasi-civilian government are just part of what is a liberalization process but is not intended as authentic democratic reform. he complained that Parliament is not efficient and capable of enacting new laws, rules, and regulations to protect rights, and strengthen economic laws. he said there was concern about the rights and safety of the public during this transition.

Suu Kyi talks about urgency, but Khin Maung Swe says amending this armydrafted Constitution will not be done in time for the 2015 elections. “The main reason is that the country doesn’t yet have national peaceful agreement between the Union government and armed ethnic groups. These armed groups will call for practical autonomy and other rights.”

There are some positive changes, according to Ye htut, an MP of the Shan national League for Democracy. “If selected MPs are qualified and committed to fulfill the requirement of the people, it wasn’t so bad for the public in reality. In my township, residents don’t get frightened by the local authorities so much compared to the past because they understand they can call on their MP to solve problems. But, most other areas [of reform] don’t happen like this.”

There are fears that a handful of men hold the country hostage. Myo Yan naung Thein, director of the Bayda Institute said: “Ongoing reforms go forward based on a personal rivalry between Lower house Speaker Shwe Mann and President Thein Sein. The current reforms will not be revised based on these current conditions. The country will be subject to person rivalry, rather than institutional checks and balances.”

Suu Kyi, who appears freer to speak more openly in public when abroad, offered a warning:

“I have repeatedly spoken out against over optimism which could cause us to lose our way. We must recognize the difficulties in our path. I do not think he would have approved of blind optimism … It is now which is the most challenging time for us. The opportunities available to us now may never come back again for a long time. To make the right choice at the right time is most important at a time of transition.”

According to Forum 2000, the theme of this year’s conference stems from the legacy of the founder of Forum 2000 Václav havel, who devoted his life to fighting for freedom and human dignity in the face of a repressive regime and who strived to transform his country into an open and prosperous democracy. Apart from Suu Kyi, guests who gathered at the 17th annual Forum 2000 Conference entitled “Societies in Transition” from September 15–17 included his holiness the Dalai Lama, the American singer and activist Joan Baez, who sang at the opening ceremony, and the former South African President and nobel Peace Prize winner Frederik Willem de Klerk.

Suu Kyi has been a Member of the Forum 2000 International Advisory Board since October 2012. The Forum 2000 Foundation was not only hosting the Myanmar opposition leader but was also the main coordinator of her second european trip since she was released from house arrest.

This article first appeared in the September 26 edition of M-ZINE+.

M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

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