After the vote, Aung San Suu Kyi put the best spin she could on it. The Burmese parliament’s rejection of attempts to amend the constitution was “not a defeat”, she insisted, because “people knew the result they would get”.
True enough, but that in itself is a grim reflection of the realities of power, four years after Burma’s ballyhooed switch from army to democratic rule. And it raises questions about the extent to which Ms Suu Kyi has allowed herself to be used as a pawn in the new “Great Game” that is under way between the US and China.
Over three days, MPs debated amending the 2008 constitution on two crucial clauses: allowing a candidate with a foreign spouse or relatives to run for president; and cutting the parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution. The former clause is thought to have been written specifically to bar Ms Suu Kyi, whose sons have British citizenship, from becoming head of state. The latter lays down that the support of more than 75 per cent of MPs is required for a constitutional amendment to be passed – a near impossibility, given that 25 per cent of them are uniformed military representatives.
The outcome justified the verdict of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, which researched Burma’s constitution and concluded that it was the hardest charter to change in the world. Civilian MPs voted overwhelmingly for the amendments, even those of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), seen as the proxy party of the military, as well as Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Two-thirds of MPs – 88 per cent of the civilians – supported change. But with the soldiers voting No in a bloc, the measures did not stand a chance.
What that means has been clear for a long time. By giving Burma this armour-plated constitution, ratified in a highly suspect referendum, the ruling generals ensured that the country would, after 50 years of overt military rule, have the ornaments of democracy but very little of the reality. Parliament was in the military’s grip. Soldiers controlled three key ministries. And a Defence and Security Council could reinstate military rule on a whim.
Ms Suu Kyi has long understood that this was a toxic document. In June 2011 she said, defending the NLD’s refusal to participate in the 2010 elections: “This constitution gives the army a right to take over all powers of government whenever they feel it’s necessary.” But by November of that year, after a meeting with President Thein Sein, apparently that no longer mattered: she told Hillary Clinton, visiting as US Secretary of State, that she was going to stand for parliament. Ms Clinton did nothing to dissuade her. The following April she swept into parliament; days later David Cameron came to congratulate her and announce the “suspension” – read “removal” – of economic sanctions on Burma. The democratic transition was complete. Except that it wasn’t.
As a Burmese former activist reflected bleakly last month, Burma is now regarded as a “normal” country by the West. It has all the required institutions. Back in 2011, Burma’s normalisation was essential for President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, with the object of containing China; it was useful to the Burmese generals for the same reason; and Ms Suu Kyi duly played her part. If she was guilty of naïvety in surrendering her unique bargaining power so meekly, if Burmese democracy today looks like a travesty of the real thing, the Obama administration – and Mr Cameron – must take their share of the blame. They set the bar very low.
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