Myanmar has come a long way in the year since Thein Sein, a former general, took office at the head of a new quasi-civilian government in March 2011. Press restrictions have been loosened, political prisoners set free, and after by-elections last month, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) are set to take up 43 hard-won seats in parliament. After decades of military dictatorship, the haze of paralysing fear that once lay over Myanmar may be finally starting to lift.
But where will things go from here? The outcome depends, in part, on how far things have come so far. While the recent reforms have captivated outside observers, prompting Western governments to relax economic sanctions, some critics say that the fundamental structures of government have been left relatively untouched.
At the centre of these concerns is Myanmar’s constitution. Passed by a bogus mass plebiscite in 2008, the document reserves a quarter of the seats in the two houses of parliament for military delegates, giving them a de facto veto power over any proposed legislation, as well as the selection of the President. Changes to the constitution require a 75% vote that will be all but impossible for the NLD and other opposition groups to engineer.
“The military still have ultimate overall control,” said Mark Farmaner, spokesman for Burma Campaign UK. “Even if the NLD had a majority in Parliament no reforms could take place without the approval of the military.”
The constitution is a particular concern of Myanmar’s armed ethnic minority groups, especially those – such as the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) – that are still in open conflict with the central government. Seen from the country’s bloody ethnic periphery, the constitution merely enshrines the authority of the Myanmar military, which human rights groups accuse of presiding over an orgy of rights abuses against civilians in ethnic conflict zones.
In Kachin State, fighting with the military has raged since June 2011 in regions close to the Chinese border. Despite some progress with other ethnic groups including the Karen, ceasefire talks between the KIO and the government have failed to make any headway, and Kachin leaders say true political dialogue – including changes to the constitution – are the only way forward.
“I believe Aung San Suu Kyi has done some good things,” said major Kareng Naw Awn, the KIO-appointed mayor of Laiza. “But if she wins the election and is in the parliament and can’t change the constitution it’s just meaningless.”
Despite its decision to re-enter the political fold and contest last month’s by-elections, the NLD is well aware of the constitution’s shortcomings. Aung San Suu Kyi has stated publicly that the document “does not conform” with democratic principles and should be changed as soon as possible, and the party has announced that its lawmakers will refuse to swear the parliamentary oath that pledges them to “protect the constitution”.
Though it will have just a small presence in parliament, the NLD is optimistic it will be able to use this legislative toehold to promote incremental change. Party spokesman Nyan Win said the party hopes to win support for any bills or proposals that are “clearly in the interests of the people”, and that it will try to push for a change to the constitution.
While it’s clear that the deck is stacked against the NLD, the country’s trajectory remains open to unpredictable jolts and changes. Myanmar’s last two constitutions, which came into force in 1948 and 1974, both lasted just 14 years. According to some, the reforms have unleashed a new dynamic of democratic competition between politicians – something that, coupled with Suu Kyi’s charisma and almost messianic popularity in Myanmar, could push the reforms further and faster than the military-backed government is willing to go.
“The NLD is very powerful among the people,” said Maung Wuntha, a veteran journalist based in Yangon. “With the people’s sentiments, there’s no possibility of going back.”