The Telegraph
Friday , December 12 , 2014

Hard road to change

- In Myanmar, constitutional reforms are needed but unlikely

The Parliament house, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar

Currently, Myanmar has a semi-democratic system with the military sharing power with the civil authority. With 25 per cent of the seats in the legislatures reserved for the armed forces, and many of the civilian leadership actually being former defence personnel, the military's exercise of control over the government remains substantial.

Through a recent resolution, the Parliament in Myanmar called for immediate consultations on constitutional reform between the president, the army chief, the Speakers of both houses of Parliament, the Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and a representative of the ethnic parties. Only a day later, President Thein Sein threw the ball back into the court of the legislators, stating that members of parliament themselves had the responsibility to amend the Constitution. These to-and-fro manoeuvres suggest that a political stalemate is developing in our neighbouring country.

To ensure a successful political transition, the democratic forces led by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy have been demanding three important constitutional changes. First, to reduce the presence of the military in the legislatures; second, to delete the constitutional provision which bars candidates (such as Suu Kyi) with spouses, parents or children with foreign citizenship from aspiring to be president; and third, to change the procedure to amend the Constitution, which at present requires the consent of three quarters of all MPs, followed by a national referendum. To generate pressure on the military, the NLD with the 88 Generation Students Group (named after the 1988 student activism against the military junta) collected about five million signatures demanding constitutional reforms. Members of the international community, in particular the American president, Barack Obama, have called for speedy constitutional reforms as well.

But the prospects of genuine constitutional reform are fading fast, because the tenure of the current Parliament will be over by November 2015. Therefore, parliamentary consent, followed by a nationwide referendum, has to be completed latest by the middle of next year. To complicate matters further, smaller parties, such as the National Democratic Force and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, have suggested a change from the first-past-the-post electoral system to one of proportional representation, which would ensure that they would have adequate representation in any future Parliament. For instance, in the 1990 election, Suu Kyi, with about 59 per cent of the vote, could win around 80 per cent of the seats in the national legislature. On the other hand, the then military-supported National Unity Party, with about 21 per cent of the vote, ended up with only 10 per cent of the seats. Proportional representation would ensure that the NLD would win fewer seats even if it repeated its 1990 performance. With one quarter of the MPs coming from the military and assuming that the USDP receives about 20-25 per cent of the vote, the military would still enjoy control of the legislatures. The debate on proportional representation has increased the options for the military to retain its dominant position, and not surprisingly, Suu Kyi's NLD, along with the bigger ethnic parties such as the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, have vehemently opposed any shift to proportional representation.

The absence of substantial constitutional reforms in the next few months will ensure that the Burmese military remains the power centre even after the 2015 elections. Thereafter, any constitutional amendment designed to reduce the role of the military might only have prospective implementation, which would mean that democratic forces would have to wait until 2020 for a Parliament in which the military presence is removed, unless Parliament is dissolved prematurely. These are the calculations which suggest that in the coming months Myanmar will witness intense political activity and there are three possible outcomes, which will have long-term implications for India.

It would be tragic in the worst-case scenario if disagreements on constitutional reform spill over to the streets and result in the loss of lives. The military could then take complete control of the government to deal with the emergency. The restoration of military rule in this way would result in the collapse of the ethnic ceasefires and the resumption of ethnic conflict, which would have a negative impact on the security of northeastern India. There will be internal and international demands on India to scale down its economic engagement and the long-delayed connectivity projects from India's Northeast to Myanmar would be delayed even further. The military regime would fall back on its other big neighbour, China, to fend off international pressure, and the latter's presence in Myanmar would register an exponential increase: the enlarged Chinese strategic footprint in Myanmar would alter the balance of power in the region to India's disadvantage.

In a status quo scenario, there could be an accommodation between the military and the NLD, with both making partial concessions; in return for accepting some changes in the electoral system, the military could partially reduce its presence in the legislatures. This would probably only be a temporary truce, and the stability of the government that comes into power after 2015 will be suspect. The absence of transparency in the decision-making process would continue, and the tense peace between armed ethnic groups and the military would threaten to fall apart. Chinese influence would continue, although its economic presence might witness a relative decline. Given the Burmese political uncertainty, the current staid pace of India's economic engagement will endure. This will not be a happy situation for India but it would be better than the complete return of military rule.

In the best-case scenario, the president, Thein Sein, along with a few other reform-minded supporters in Parliament, could initiate reforms aimed at either reducing the presence of the military in the legislatures or simplifying the procedure for constitutional amendment. This would imply that some military MPs would have to break ranks and join hands with the democratic forces, and the military leadership, recognizing the pitfalls of procrastination, would have to display statesmanship by allowing reforms to go through. Confidence in managing the transition could prompt discussions on genuine decentralization of power with the various armed ethnic groups. With political and economic reforms going hand-in-hand, the investment climate would register significant improvement and there would be diversity in terms of economic participation in the country. Such a desirable situation would have a salutary impact on India, and especially on its northeastern borders. Given political will, India should be able to operationalize its connectivity projects and promote the cross-border movement of goods and people. Indian companies would have greater options to collaborate with other corporate bodies in Myanmar, and the relative decline of the Chinese presence would gain momentum as Myanmar engaged more confidently with the outside world.

Could India prod Myanmar towards a successful democratic transition? There is no denying that there is interest in Myanmar to learn from India's democracy, but in political and economic terms, India's profile in Myanmar has been less than satisfactory. Ceasefires with some armed ethnic groups were facilitated by China, and after China, Thailand is Myanmar's biggest trade partner. In contrast, India's trade with Myanmar is scant, amounting to less than $2 billion. With such minuscule engagement, India's capacity to nudge the Burmese stakeholders towards an enlightened compromise is minimal, which is unfortunate given the shared border and strong historical connections. To address this lacuna, academic institutions, business houses, civil society organizations and our government ministries must reach out to counterparts in Myanmar. Experience shows that to bring about positive change in our neighbourhood, India needs to have a full-spectrum engagement.

S. Pulipaka is a consultant at ICRIER, New Delhi. K. Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary