Burma’s National Convention: New Resolve, Same Hurdles
By Aung Naing Oo Thursday, September 18, 2003

September 18, 2003—On August 30, Burmese Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt announced that Burma would reconvene the long-suspended National Convention, the first step in the "road map of Myanmar" he laid out in his inaugural address. A week later, a panel of high-ranking army officers was appointed to the National Convention Convening Committee. Rangoon has tried for the past eight years to produce a junta-friendly constitution through the National Convention. Clearly, it has failed. But the new moves—the decision to resume the convention and the reorganization of the Convention Committee—may signal that the junta is more resolute about achieving the goals of the convention. Nevertheless, the Burmese generals will face the same hurdles experienced in the previous efforts to draft a constitution. Constitutional experts and various Burmese opposition groups have long attacked the legitimacy of an illegal government leading a convention to produce a constitution. A 1999 booklet by the exiled Burma Lawyers’ Council called the National Convention "highly controversial and arguably illegal." The National League for Democracy (NLD) abandoned the process in November 1995 because the military sought too large a role in governance. The National Convention was completely suspended in March 1996, because its objectives were highly untenable. Given the nature of the 104 principles and 6 guidelines, which would have essentially ensured a commanding role for the Burmese armed forces in the future affairs of the state, the proposed constitution lacked any substantial democratic reforms. Then as now, the idea was to bring about a "disciplined democracy," as Khin Nyunt stated in his August speech. It was not to address the country’s protracted conflict. Now the National Convention has made a comeback. And nothing has changed—not the contents, the objectives, the political climate, not even the organizer. Furthermore, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is again under detention, as she was during the last convention. Other NLD leaders are also in detention, and the party has been all but dismantled. Will the junta release them and invite the NLD to join the process? Certainly not. The SPDC will not accomplish their goals if Suu Kyi and her party’s leadership are free. Since the generals are not prepared to negotiate with them, their best option is to keep them locked up. It’s a costly move, but the regime appears determined to pay the price. They also appear to be hoping for a hefty payoff once the charter is written: legal control of the country and freedom from the threat of Aung San Suu Kyi. Undoubtedly, the SPDC will face the same obstacles as they did in 1993. There has already been widespread opposition to the new National Convention. There is also support. But the endorsements have come with conditions. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), a major ceasefire group, welcomed the National Convention. But according to The Kachin Post, The KIO will join the process only if all ethnic groups and political parties can participate and if the process differs from previous efforts. The KIO was made an observer after its truce with Rangoon in 1994. Nai Banya Mon, spokesperson of Foreign Affairs Committee of the New Mon State Party, another key ceasefire partner, supports the idea of the convention. But he emphasized the fact that it would only be the answer to the country’s calamities if genuine representatives of the people were to attend. "If the SPDC goes back to the National Convention of 1993, it will be fundamentally opposed to our aspirations," he said. These sentiments are shared by many stakeholders, but it is too early to say where the process is headed. No details have been disclosed by the SPDC. However, if the junta fails to incorporate the concerns expressed by various parties involved, accomplishing the convention’s goals will be a daunting task. Without doubt, the SPDC will attempt to make the new process as legitimate as possible, in its own narrow "legal" way. The Burmese junta is the law unto itself. It hardly needs anyone’s support for the convention. But the SPDC does need legitimacy. The whole idea of a junta-led constitution is to legally enshrine their illegitimate governance in a legitimate form. It would therefore not be a surprise if the SPDC quietly persuaded critics and deserters within the NLD to help them gain such legitimacy. As a matter of fact, the SPDC has already tried that. A number of NLD Members of Parliament have been asked if they support the roadmap spelt out by Khin Nyunt. Whether the overtures have been accepted is not yet known but similar approaches are expected with ethnic groups and various political entities. Whether they will cow to the demands of the regime remains to be seen.

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