Global Justice Center Blog

First Things First: Constitutional Reform in Burma

On October 23, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, released the latest report on the Situation on Human Rights in Myanmar for the General Assembly’s sixty-eighth session. The report had been highly anticipated by civil society groups who are concerned with growing tensions in the turbulent nation.

Mr. Quintana, incidentally, had a closer look at that tension than he’d likely anticipated recently when, during an unpleasant trip to the Rakhine state, the lack of a government security detail led to him being accosted by an angry mob. (Burmese President, Thein Sein’s almost comical response was to insist that the mob had actually been trying to present the UN official with a letter and a t-shirt.)

It was of little surprise, then, that the Special Rapporteur’s update highlighted the urgent need for continued reforms. 2013 has seen a growing chorus of international approval for Burma’s incremental human rights gains but, let’s face it, when the forced relocation of entire ethnic villages into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps ranks among the less distressing human rights events of the year, things really haven’t improved much in Burma.

Accusations of political violence and discrimination have continued to plague the Sein administration; particularly harrowing have been the reports from Burma’s ethnic and border regions, where political opposition groups continue to be victimized by the state’s brutal military and police. Accusations of sexual violence, forced labor, human trafficking, the recruitment of child soldiers, use of prisoners as human mine sweepers, arbitrary arrests, extortion, land confiscation, denial and revocation of citizenship, and restrictions on movement, religion, and marriage, have been lobbed at the Sein administration from all directions.

That these atrocities continue despite 23 years of calls for reform indicates something’s not working. Even 2008’s new national constitution did little more than rebrand the brutal ruling military junta, who have effectively cowed the world into believing that Burma is ever on the brink of becoming overwhelmed with the reform process, prepared to revert to the hermit kingdom they once were. As a result, the timid international community is content to cajole the Burmese government into accepting piecemeal reforms that have done little to change a culture of intimidationimpunity, and deadly violence.

It seems more obvious now than ever, any real solution lies fundamentally deeper than reform at the symptom level. Comprehensive constitutional reform that divests the former military junta of its continuing grip on power in Burma by imposing civilian controls is the only option.

Mr. Quintana appears to agree. This week’s report includes numerous unambiguous statements on the need for constitutional reforms. Alongside calls for quotas to boost women’s participation in state and local decision-making and for an independent judiciary were denunciations of constitutionally-sanctioned impunity and discrimination. That Mr. Quintana, for the first time, pointed out specific enabling constitutional articles hopefully signals the UN has had enough of Burma’s half measures.

The futility of incremental reforms has been noted inside Burma, to be sure. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has seen its calls for an amended or completely redrawn national constitution gain momentum within the country recently and Burma’s multitude of ethnic minorities have begun to demand a seat at the table in an effort to help determine their own fate.

NLD leader and Nobel peace prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has now asked the international community to help democracy activists in Burma to amend the Constitution; she urged world leaders, including the European Union and the United States, to continue to put pressure of the Burmese government saying, “Reform has gone as far as it can without changes to the constitution.”

This push has also been championed by women’s rights groups within Burma and around the world who urge fundamental reforms are needed to address Burma’s constitutional deficiencies, such as the lack of a substantial equality guarantee which effectively excludes ethnic women from political participation. The 2008 document even shockingly includes a provision proclaiming males should be appointed to “positions that are naturally suited for men.”

A multitude of official world bodies have also repeatedly highlighted the need for constitutional reforms. Until recently, though, most have done so with glancing blows, failing to connect on the most fundamental issue, the Burmese military’s constitutionally guaranteed stake in governing the country. Until this metric is fundamentally rewritten, there will be no accountability for a government that routinely eviscerates the basic human rights of its own citizens in order to maintain its grip on power.

With the UN now seemingly on board, the next steps on the human rights situation in Burma are clear: The international community must cease lauding President Thein Sein for plodding political and economic reforms calculated to insulate the ruling regime, and attack the fundamental dynamic that sustains a culture of bloodshed in Burma. They must insist on targeted constitutional reforms that will allow full and robust participation in Burma’s government by all of its peoples. Anything less at this late stage would amount to a tacit approval of the wholesale slaughter of innocent women, children and men.

Tags: Constitutions, Sexual Violence & Rape, Impunity, War Crimes/Crimes Against Humanity, Rule of Law, Democracy, Burma, Torture