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MYANMAR: Are there hopes for political reforms?

Paper no. 992                                                                        06. 05. 2004


by C.S. Kuppuswamy

There is much speculation in the international media that Aung San Suu Kyi will be released before May 17, 2004, to enable her to participate in the reconvened national convention.  She is under house arrest since May 30, 2003 and this is the third time she is under arrest since the 1980s. The convention, for which a large number of delegates have been invited is scheduled to be held on May 17 at a conference center in a remote suburb (north of Rangoon) to prepare a new constitution  

 The national convention originally constituted in 1993 was suspended abruptly in 1996 after expulsion of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, which  had walked out of the proceedings on the ground that the junta was manipulating the whole process. 

 With the Generals continuing to resist reforms, there is little hope for the new convention to make any headway for ushering in political reforms..  While elaborating the reasons for such resistance, Mary Callahan in her book “Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma” writes that “even a compromise with the opposition would be seen as a capitulation, so the army simply manipulates the course of events to perpetuate military rule, not to change the way in which the country is ruled".  International condemnation or the displeasure of their own people have not deterred the junta from holding on to the special status they have acquired over the years in ruling the nation. 

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is under pressure from ASEAN, to introduce some political reforms before Myanmar takes over the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2006.  Perhaps with this aim in view, General Khin Nyunt, on his appointment as Prime minister in August 2003, came out with a seven-point “roadmap” towards democracy including “free and fair” elections under a new constitution.  However the “roadmap” gives no time schedule for its implementation.  The national convention is the first step in the “roadmap” announced by the military junta. When the first national convention was suspended in March 1996, it had already adopted six chapters of a new charter.  The indications are that the new convention will start from where it was terminated and not start from scratch. 

To enlist the support of the ethnic groups, the military junta has been wooing these groups or pressurizing them, to endorse the  “roadmap” and to participate in the convention.  Media reports indicate that 13 ethnic militias and five splinter groups have so far pledged support for the “roadmap”.  Karen National Union, the largest of the ethnic rebel groups signed a truce with the junta in January 2004. 

The national convention will however be a mockery and would lack legitimacy if the main opposition party( the NLD) does not participate.  For this purpose the military junta has released a large number of political prisoners including some central committee members of this party and has permitted the party’s office in the capital to restart functioning.  According to a BBC news report the NLD spokesman U Lwin had mentioned that the NLD will attend the convention if certain conditions are met.  The report also mentions that the senior leaders of the party had met Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence twice during the last week of April 2004.   

During the last visit of UN special envoy Razali Ismail to Myanmar in March 2004, expectations soared high when he announced that Prime Minister Khin Nyunt is committed to taking his country to democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi is ready to work with him on it. Foreign minister Win Aung also announced in an interview in Bangkok on April 03, 2004 that Aung San Suu Kyi will be released before May 17 without giving any specific date. However till date (05 May 2004) Suu Kyi and Tin Oo, the Vice-chairman, have not been released and there is no news of NLD’s participation in the national convention either. 

The sincerity of implementation of political reforms in the country is doubted because of the recent cancellation of Myanmar’s participation in the second round of the international dialogue called the “Bangkok Process” due to be held in Thailand from April 29-30, 2004. The reason given by the SPDC for not attending the second round was that the junta was busy with some internal developments. It is presumably because Myanmar did not want to be embarrassed by further pressure from the nations participating in the “Bangkok Process”.  The first round of the “ Bangkok Process” was held in December 2003 in which 10 Asian and European Governments participated and Myanmar foreign minister had announced that the government would press ahead with the national convention in 2004. 


1. Despite all the fanfare and publicity given for reconvening  the national convention, the attitude of military junta towards a liberal democratic constitution has not changed. 

2. By releasing Aung San Suu Kyi (if and when it happens) the Army is perhaps trying to put the onus for NLD’s participation in the convention  on Aung San Suu Kyi. The release is perhaps done to influence international opinion and to show the world that  nonparticipation of the NLD would mean the party’s unwillingness to compromise or  negotiate an acceptable way out of this impasse. 

3.  There is no indication of change in the  mindset of the junta on the contentious  issues on which the NLD walked out of the convention in 1995. The NLD  and definitely Aung San Suu Kyi  would not  compromise on such basic issues. The result will be another dead lock. The countries, which have so far tried their “constructive engagement”, should have realized by now that  the Army wants reforms on its terms and not on  international norms. 

4.The basic principles, which are loaded in favour of the military and the contentious issues termed as non negotiable by the junta, on which the new constitution is to be framed relate to reservation of seats for the military in both the houses, granting of sweeping powers to the President with total control over the executive and residential qualifications for the president whose family members can not be foreign residents. The military will have complete autonomy. The NLD will not agree to most of these conditions.  The proposals disqualify even Suu Kyi from becoming a president. Perhaps the proposals were suggested to ensure that Suu Kyi does not occupy a place of prominence in the new dispensation. It is difficult to see Suu Kyi, the daughter of a great hero of Myanmar to accept such conditions.

5. The military junta is perhaps keen on going through this exercise  mainly, to please the ASEAN Nations, to seek some measure of international credibility and  exhibit that it has made a serious effort to bring in some political reforms.  Actually there has been no effort  on their part to have a compromise with Suu Kyi

6.  The convention would be one more attempt on the part of military to prolong  the status quo both politically and economically. This it is hoped will be seen through by other ASEAN partners.