Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, has announced elections will take place in fall 2010, but an exact date has not yet been set. The international community is looking towards the elections as a possible move towards a more democratic society.
The country has been ruled by a military junta since 1962.
President Obama has continued support of sanctions against Myanmar but has also showed his desire to engage the country.
A United Nations envoy spent five days in Myanmar this month to monitor human rights but was never permitted to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s main opposition figure. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has spent 14 of the past 20 years under some form of confinement. This week her latest appeal was thrown out by the Burmese Supreme Court.
David Williams, a law professor and executive director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies at Indiana University, joins Worldfocus to discuss the upcoming elections in Myanmar. Williams has written widely on constitutional law and has spoken at the United Nations and U.S. Congress on Burma.
Worldfocus: You recently spoke on a U.N. panel focusing on what the 2008 constitution will mean for upcoming elections. How will the new constitution affect the elections?
Williams: The constitution creates all the new offices to which candidates will be elected, so in a sense it actually creates the elections themselves.
On the other hand, by its terms, the constitution does not technically come fully into effect until the first meeting of the newly elected legislature. In other words, the constitution will not actually govern this first election. Instead, the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) will run the election in whatever way it sees fit. The SPDC is unlikely to allow a great deal of political freedom in the runup to the election.
Worldfocus: What is the likelihood that the elections will move the country toward greater democracy?
Williams: Not very likely. Even after the election, under the constitution, the military will still be the real power. The constitution gives the military complete, unaccountable authority over its own affairs, which the constitution defines very broadly: being the primary guardian of the constitution (rather than the courts), safeguarding “national solidarity,” participating in the “National political leadership role of the state,” and enlisting the whole people in a militia.
It is possible that, if the military falls asleep at the switch, Burmese citizens may mount a protest movement for constitutional change that will sweep the regime from power. But unless there is constitutional change, Burma will not know anything like true democracy.
Worldfocus: In your opinion, what makes Burma an important international issue?
Williams: It is experiencing the longest ongoing civil war in the world; the government is committing atrocities against its citizens; it is creating regional instability; it is funneling drugs to surrounding countries; it may have opened communications with North Korea about nuclear weapons; it is resource-rich but profoundly misgoverned.
Worldfocus: Do you think Aung San Suu Kyi will be released from house arrest after the elections?
Williams: I think that it is impossible to predict. The regime will release her only if they don’t feel threatened by her at the time.
Worldfocus: Suu Kyi is the best known Burmese figure to the international community. What is her influence inside the country?
Williams: She is almost universally beloved (except by the regime and its close followers), so she provides a unifying force for the democracy movement. Because she is under house arrest, she is not able to take a direct managerial role in her party or the movement. The constitution also prevents her from running for president because her children are foreign citizens. Unless she is released, she also will not be able to campaign for other candidates.
Worldfocus: What role should the U.S. and the Obama administration play leading up to elections in Burma?
Williams: I think that the Obama administration is doing exactly what it should be doing: strongly condemning the regime for its abuses but talking to them to try to get them to change. The SPDC wants closer relations with the US, but that must be conditioned on improvements in human rights and democracy.
– Geneva Sands-Sadowitz
For more on Burma, listen to Worldfocus Radio: Burmese Political Change.