Myanmar: The Road Map to Where?


David I Steinberg

The implementation of the seven-point road map toward a new constitution and eventual new elections that was laid out by the Prime Minister on 30 August 2003 is now beginning. The military government is under significant time constraints because it must demonstrate progress toward change before 2006, when Myanmar will chair and host the ASEAN meetings; without such progress, Myanmar is an embarrassment to ASEAN. An international meeting in Bangkok in December moved the process forward and there is every indication that within the first six months of 2004 the National Convention, which is supposed to draft the principles on which the constitution will be based, will be reconvened.

Substantial procedural and operational questions remain. Who will be invited to participate in the Convention; will the agreed-upon 104 ‘principles’ emanating from the previous sessions (halted in 1996) be reconsidered; what will be the rules of engagement in debate and consideration of the issues; and when will it all come to fruition? When the Convention ends, there will be a national referendum on the proposed constitution, followed by elections for a parliament, which in turn will pick the president and vice presidents.

Opinions of observers in Yangon seems divided as to how much progress will take place before 2006. Some say a civilian government will be in office before that time, while others maintain that it is more likely that a constitution will have been completed and a referendum held, but that a new civilian or ‘civilianised’ (military dominated in civilian clothes) government will be installed after the ASEAN meetings. These are the minimum conditions likely to satisfy ASEAN.

The thorniest of the issues facing the government, and thus the National Convention, is the treatment of the ethnic minorities (called ‘races’ in the country) and the degree of self-government that will be allowed to certain groups. Some ethnic groups, which have cease-fire agreements with the central government, have been promised some local autonomy within prescribed areas; but this is a major issue for the government, as minority affairs have been the most enduring of the problems facing the state since independence.

The strategy of the government seems to be to bring significant minorities into the National Convention and, toward this end, negotiations for a cease-fire with the Karen National Union, the longest standing rebellion in the world that started in 1949, were undertaken in January 2004. The ten legal political parties have not yet been invited to participate, but if the major opposition group, the National League for Democracy, is invited and chooses not to attend or walks out because it feels the rules of participation do not allow for sufficient freedom of expression, then the military can claim it was their choice and that the rest of the country is behind the process.

The following few months, probably following the Burmese new year in April, will see more action on these fronts. But a significant remaining issue for the administration is what to do about Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest. There are rumors that the military are talking with her, but how both sides will deal with the 30 May 2003 debacle in which a large but unknown number of people among the opposition were killed, remains unaddressed. In a sense, creating the role of prime minister for General Khin Nyunt and the seven-point road map may be seen as the way out of that problem, but the issue of that affair, and indeed any role for Aung San Suu Kyi herself, must be addressed at some point to satisfy international and local opinion.

WATCHPOINT: How will the government handle the ethnic minorities and Aung San Suu Kyi issues?


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