Governmental elections are the foundation of democracy and government in modern world politics. The foundation of a nation is in its upholding of a constitution that guarantees civil and political rights for its citizens. Each clause of the constitution must guarantee these rights to all citizens. Burma’s 2010 new general elections will test these perspectives. The 12th of February is marked as “Union Day” in Burma, symbolizing unity among ethnicities or unity in diversity. This symbolization does not yet match with reality in the country of Burma, where civil wars and political conflicts between ethnic groups are deeply rooted in the history of the past sixty years.
Burma has failed to uphold the constitutional, civil, and political rights of its people, and thus its foundation as a nation, since the day after the country received independence in 1948. Imbalances of power between the central government and ethnic-based state authorities have been the seed of conflicts for over half the 20th century. The Mon, Karen, Shan, Chin, Kachin, Kayeh and other ethnic people fought for constitutional rights until 1960 but the Burman-dominated government denied them “State Constitutional Rights” in both the 1947 and 1973 new constitutions. The ethnic leaders have had no other means to gain rights besides forming armed military units, to wage civil war for the right of self determination under the Burmese constitution since that time. The battle is not yet over.
The new constitution amended by a forced referendum in May 2008 was another attempt by the government of Burma, led by the military junta, to control all constitutional power over Burma’s seven ethnic States. A 194 paged document containing all the clauses in the articles of the constitution left little space for ethnic people and states to hold constitutional power. In fact, the new constitution was based on a “unitary union” desired by the military junta, rather than the “federal union” demanded by the ethnic political leaders.
The New Mon State Party (NMSP), the principal ethnic political organization of Mon State and its people, has repeatedly urged the State Peace and Development Council, the current military junta, to redraft and have a proper debate about new constitution on several occasions. However, the military junta has rejected having a public debate on redrafting the new constitution. The Mon leaders finally rejected the constitution, and also refused to form a “Border Guard Force” of its military battalions. Tension between the SPDC and NMSP leaders both politically and militarily, has been intense for some months in Mon State. Consequently, the military junta used its power to charge a young Mon monk Buddhist teacher, and democracy activist, for possessing a laptop that contained some files protesting the new 2010 elections. The police detained and tortured him last month, and he is now in a prison cell without legal access.
Unless the military junta agrees to allow opposition parties, non-Burman State leaders’ demand for a public debate and redrafting of the constitution, the new election will be a joke. If the military junta forces all of Burma’s citizens to vote for its handpicked candidates in the upcoming elections, and the world accepts the outcome, Burma will continue to be dominated by a military government. The Burmese military junta is using every avenue and all its power to force all ethnic groups’ military battalions to form “Border Guard Forces” under the legal framework and control of the Burma Armed Force. Many ethnic leaders have rejected this invitation.
Mon State’s principle ethnic political party, the New Mon State Party, and its armed wing, the Mon National Liberation Army, have been asking Mon people at home and around the world to review the new constitution, seeking to know whether it contains the Mon peoples’ interests. Over thirty civil society groups in Mon State ran an anti- election campaign by releasing traditional “Fire Balloons” in mid 2009. The military junta got angry about the campaign, and cracked down on all leading civil rights groups in Mon State. Consequently, the Mon music and language groups are under a surveillance.
Burma has been moving down the road to democracy for over twenty years. However, the new constitution does not guarantee civil and constitutional rights for the country’s citizens. Burma’s citizens call for support from the world’s democratic leaders, asking them to pressure the current military junta to grant greater political dialogue and participation within the country. This call has been ignored for years.
Burma’s “Union Day” is meaningless unless “unity in diversity” is truly accepted by Burma’s society. The survival of Burma rests on a guarantee of constitutional rights for all its citizens, and especially for the rights of Burma’s seven ethnic states. Either pro-engagement or anti- engagement with Burma’s junta will not made any difference unless the new 2008 constitution publicly debated by all citizens. The world’s leaders must support Burma’s citizens at home and around the world by encouraging public debate on the new constitution, for the best interests of the Burmese nation. Members of democratic nations like Australia, British and USA should train constitutional lawyers in Burma.
Elections are the foundation of a modern democratic government. But, the new election sponsored by the military junta is but a bandage placed atop the political injuries of the last half century. The forcibly amended new constitution must be destroyed, and a “Federal Union” model must be drafted with allowances for equal representation for all the country’s citizens in 2010. This new model should be examined by constitutional experts from the UN, USA and other nations, with collaboration from a “Burmese Constitutional Drafting Committee that can be set up at the National Convention.
Burma is heading down a long road to democracy. Drafting the best model of a constitution, with equal representation from all ethnic representatives, the National League for Democracy, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and even representation from the current military junta, is a correct approach to solving Burma’s political crisis. A sixty day long National Convention should be held, to debate this new model of the constitution. Burma’s citizens and a constitutional technical assistance group must be given at least one hundred days for comments and debate. The new federal election should be held in late 2011 or early 2012, and then afterwards state elections should be held in due time.
Civil war is not the way to achieve political goals. Placing military rule over the nation is wrong. Neither civil war nor military rule can change Burma into a democratic nation. Constitutional reform, that guarantees constitutional rights to all citizens and all of Burma’s ethnic sates, is the best approach to the crisis. Union Day is about both unity in diversity and unity in purpose.