The Center in Burma
For decades, Burma has suffered under one of the most oppressive military regimes on Earth. Despite an active democratic resistance, the nation has often been fragmented along ethnic, ideological, and other lines and has therefore been unable to effect coherent change. To some, democracy has not seemed a viable alternative to the military government in Burma because those outside fear that democracy will bring disorder in its wake. Furthermore, even after Burma achieves democracy, ethnic and ideological fragmentation will make it all the more difficult to keep democracy.
Today, one of the central challenges facing Burma in its search for freedom is the need to develop constitutional reforms that will allow its many ethnic groups to live together in harmony. The Center is uniquely positioned to assist the Burmese democracy movement in its efforts to address this challenge. The Center has established broad and deep connections within the Burmese democracy movement and has earned the trust of its leaders through years of close cooperation with them on a variety of projects. In addition, the Center offers the movement its expertise on constitutional design and its long experience in teaching these issues.
The Center’s Burma program consists of four central projects:
- The Center offers training in constitutionalism, democracy, and the rule of law to participants in the Burmese democracy movement.
- Center members work with opposition parliamentarians in the current legislature.
- The Center acts as an advisory body to several individuals and committees within the United States government regarding Burmese engagement.
- The Center is opening discussions with the Burmese government.
Advising the Burmese democracy movement
State Constitution Drafting
This project, developed in consultation with a wide range of groups within the Burmese democracy movement, seeks to move Burma closer to democracy by developing state constitutions that address the needs of the country, by teaching democratic constitutionalism to a critical mass of leaders and people, and by translating texts in order to facilitate the wider dissemination of these ideas.
The Center has worked individually with the state constitution drafting committees for Chin, Shan, Karen, Kachin, Mon, and Karenni states to refine their draft constitutions. Center personnel have taught seminars on constitutionalism to members of all of the state constitution drafting committees and to a wide range of civil society leaders in the ethnic minority communities, including women’s organizations and youth groups. This work, carried out over the past ten years, has helped to develop a core of leaders who understand the constitutional issues facing Burma and are prepared to address them.
Working with alliances and organizations
The Burmese government is currently negotiating ceasefires with at least 10 ethnic minority groups. The government has also agreed in principle to follow the ceasefires with political talks about future constitutional reform. CCD personnel are advising the ethnic minority groups on the ceasefire process and also on the process for entering into political talks about constitutional amendments.
Center personnel have met with several of the armed resistance groups, including the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIA), the Chin National Front (CNF), the Shan State Army – South (SSA-S), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the Karen National Union (KNU), and the New Mon State Party (NMSP). The Center works with these groups to discern what they want from a democratic constitution and what would engage their commitment to the system. The Center also works with civil society groups and umbrella organizations such as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), and the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC).
Agreement on the principles for future constitutional reform can serve as a potent unifying impulse within the movement as it works for change. Groups with differing agendas will be better able to trust and cooperate with each other in the knowledge that they share the same basic vision for Burma. And ex ante agreement on a constitutional framework will make it far more likely that Burma will not relapse into civil war and/or military domination.
Advising the opposition parliamentarians
Early in 2012, the Five Ethnic Parties Brotherhood Alliance approached the CCD with a request that Center personnel lead a seminar in Rangoon, to provide guidance about how to be a political opposition and disagree through peaceful procedures. The seminar took place late in 2012.
United States government advisory work
The Center advises the US State Department, the US Ambassador to Burma, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, and the Senate Foreign Relations committee about issues of Burmese engagement. Center personnel recently met with the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) and the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) in Thailand to compose a Benchmark Memo, laying out a structured process of engagement between the US and the Burmese government. The Benchmark Memo was presented to members of the United States government in late 2012.
Opening discussions with the Burmese government
Burma’s latest constitution was drafted by its military regime and published in September 2008. In 2010, for the first time in 20 years, general elections were held under the new constitution, resulting in victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Despite widespread international suspicion of election fraud, the holding of elections was an important step forward.
The new government, under the leadership of President Thein Sein, has expressed openness to discussions for reform.