Burma’s military government will reopen its constitutional convention for the fifth and final time as announced last week, whereby a new charter will be finalized and go to a referendum; thereafter the country will supposedly return to some kind of civilian administration.
Whether or not any of this actually happens remains to be seen. The country has been without a constitution since 1988 and the current draft has been on the drawing board since around 1992. Media reports indicate that matters still up for final review include the holding of elections, political party affairs, states of emergency, measures to further amend the constitution, the national flag and seal, the transitional period and “miscellaneous” provisions — which seems rather a lot for one session.
Still, the hint of new surface movement has created a little ripple abroad too. United Nations representatives, U.S. and Chinese officials, assorted experts and others have been trying to reopen dialogue with the regime. While high-level discussions are underway and ideas are being put on tables, key actors are interfacing. So is there anything new in this, or is it just more of the same?
Perhaps to shift the blame for years of failed negotiations, various parties outside of Burma have in recent times complained that both the military regime and its political opponents, specifically Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, are being unreasonably obstinate. If only each side would give in a bit, couldn’t things be worked out?
The short answer is no. This is because the military, which already holds power and only stands to lose it, does not want to work things out. The generals have long applied what a bureaucrat on the BBC comedy series “Yes Minister” once described as “the law of inverse relevance” — the less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it. Activity is bluff, dialogue is delay. Whereas the political opposition may not budge from its principles, the army just doesn’t budge.
Therefore, when U.N. representatives and experts talk about reopening talks, it must be understood that a radical difference exists between their view of what they are doing and that of their interlocutors. While for one side dialogue is intended to achieve progress, for the other it is intended to achieve naught. This is best illustrated in the drafting of the constitution that has taken 15 years to reach some kind of predictable end. There is no sign how much longer it will take to get through the remaining tasks, undertaken in phases, in accordance with national objectives, with an incoherent roadmap and of course, the people’s desires — before the whole thing is over and done with.
Meanwhile, another entirely different group has been busy with its own draft constitution. In 1997, political exiles published an alternate charter, envisioning a federal state rather than a unitary one. With the advice and assistance of international donors and interested professionals, a further version under a new coordinating committee was released in 2006. Apparently, its work too is ongoing.
The obvious question is, why bother with yet another draft constitution? When the army has endlessly reviewed and revised its charter to stall political change, what reasons would prompt persons outside Burma to spend years rewriting, coordinating, brainstorming, debating and consulting on a document that will never actually take effect?
While it may bring some intellectual satisfaction and emotional succor to those involved, it is unlikely to enthrall millions in the country, already bored sick by the minutiae of various constitutional committees, subcommittees, delegates, and officials that saturate nightly television broadcasts. Those who watch such telecasts long enough are sometimes rewarded with the latest episode of a hot Korean drama or a live English Football Association Cup broadcast; the regime’s opponents don’t even have this much on offer.
The two constitution-drafting processes are equally pointless, although for completely different reasons. One group has the power to implement its charter, but has no genuine commitment while the other has commitment but no power. Whereas for the first, constitution writing is a strategic exercise, for the second it is largely academic. Moreover, for people throughout Burma, there is no advantage in either. No unique expertise or remarkable analytical skills are needed to grasp the army’s sole aim to keep itself as the arbiter of the country’s future, and to see the writing of imaginary alternatives that will do little to solve its seemingly intractable problems.
Almost two decades of diplomatic niceties, advice from overpaid specialists, training by well-meaning constitutional experts and toying with substitute charters have failed to bring any meaningful change in Burma. By now, scholars and funding agencies alike should have learned to stay away from constitutional pipe dreams and stick to reality instead. They should contribute by learning about what is actually going on in the country and get involved in relevant work and discussions on the lives of the majority of people there, rather than theorizing.
United Nations experts and diplomats should have learned that if they intend to go head-to-head with the regime, then they must first understand the intricacies of structural obstacles to meaningful reforms in Burma, rather than engaging in simplistic political debates and making piecemeal humanitarian gestures. Otherwise, another decade will pass and the country will still be in much the same spot as it is now. The military will thus have achieved its objective while everyone else will have wasted their time.