Just having Burma’s pro-democracy icon and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Australia is a lovely thing. She is one of those few international figures, along with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Xanana Gusmao, who seem to be all but universally admired in the West.
But despite Daw (to use the polite honorific) Suu Kyi taking a few days out to say thanks to those in Australia who have supported her long and difficult struggle for democracy in the country now known as Myanmar, formerly called Burma, she has a much more practical and compelling agenda. In short, Suu Kyi wants the world to press Myanmar’s still military-dominated government to amend the constitution to allow genuine democracy.
There is no doubt that Myanmar has embarked on a process of political reform over the past two years. Politically, it has only the barest resemblance to that dark and closed place of extensive human rights abuse that existed until recently.
But despite what appears to be the genuine, if sometimes misguided, efforts of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, war continues to rage against Kachin and Shan separatists in the north and north-east of the country. Other ethnic groups have made a temporary peace, or are looking to do so.
So, too, Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim Rohingya, of Rhakine state, continue to be at the edge of the state’s tolerance. A related sentiment has also been expressed in anti-Muslim rioting closer to the country’s heartland, often with what has been perceived as intentionally too little state response.
Myanmar is, therefore, a state in transition. And it has, at this stage, only gone part of the way.
The 2008 constitution was voted on in an unobserved vote, as the country was still reeling from the impact of Cyclone Nargis. This allowed the regime to re-commit to a “Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy”, enunciated first in 2003 by prime minister Kyin Nyunt, who was then sacked and jailed for having gone too far too soon.
Suu Kyi’s Australian — and international — campaign now is to have the necessary 75% of the government agree to change the constitution. In her first comments on Australian soil, she said this was necessary if Myanmar is to become a democracy.
Under the existing constitution, which bans ministers from having family members living overseas, Suu Kyi is barred from running for president. However, this also applies to some existing ministers and is, therefore, expected to be changed.
But more importantly, when Myanmar goes to the polls in November 2015, the military will have reserved for it 25% of the seats in the Parliament. With just one more vote, the military will still control a veto over further constitutional change.
Based on the results of the 1990 elections, when the people of Myanmar had something akin to a real vote, the USDP could be expected to win at least about the same as, if not more than, its predecessor State Law and Order Restoration Council’s 20% of the vote. That would guarantee no constitutional change to remove a military veto over constitutional amendments.
To this could be added the vote of localised ethnically based parties, which are no friends of Suu Kyi’s ethnic Burman National League for Democracy. Not only would Suu Kyi and her NLD not win enough of the vote to change the constitution, despite overwhelming public support, they would even be struggling to form a majority in Myanmar’s Parliament.
This constitutional rigging is Suu Kyi’s underlying message during her Australia visit.
Beyond rigging the parliamentary vote, Myanmar’s military controlled National Defence and Security Council sits above the Parliament and has the capacity to declare a state of emergency, in which it may dissolve the Parliament and assume all legislative, executive and judicial powers. This can only be changed via the constitution, which is rigged to disallow such a change.
So, during her visit to Australia, when Aung San Suu Kyi mentions “constitutional reform” or “change”, she is not referring to some abstract principle. What Suu Kyi will be referring to is whether or not Myanmar becomes a democracy.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University, and is a board member of the Australia Myanmar Institute