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Referendum for Myanmar’s Constitution in the wake of Cyclone Nargis

Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 12, 2008

    Howsoever much others may want to distance India from mlitary-ruled Myanmar, the widespread devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis has brought India into the spotlight. That it occurred barely a week prior to Myanmar’s proposed constitutional Referendum on May 10 brought this out in bold relief.

    Cyclone Nargis is estimated to have left over 22,000 dead with over 40,000 missing. This has delayed the vote to May 24 in 47 townships (40 of the 45 townships in Yangon area and seven in Ayeyawady delta). Balloting would be held as scheduled (May 10) in other areas. The regime has already been conducting advance voting since last month (in its embassies abroad and for civil servants and personnel belonging to the police, fire brigade, etc. who would be on duty on the day of Referendum).

    Myanmar announced on February 9 that it would hold a referendum for a new Constitution in May 2008 and (multi-party democracy) general elections in 2010.1 The SPDC issued the Referendum Law comprising twelve chapters for the approval of the draft constitution (Law No. 1/2008).2 It explicitly states in Chapter 1 that “Referendum means the Referendum held for enabling the approval of the draft State Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” It excludes fives categories from voting, among which are members of religious orders3 and persons who are illegally abroad.4 Both groups constitute important sections of Myanmar. Monks are important not only because they numerically balance the armed forces, but for their moral clout and for knowing the pulse of the people. Those illegally abroad are also usually the more qualified who left in the wake of the August 1988 movement. Aung San Suu Kyi would have the right to cast her vote in the referendum.

    On February 19 the draft Constitution had been readied by the 54-member Commission for Drafting the State Constitution led by Myanmar’s Chief Justice Aung Toe. This was the culmination of 14 years of deliberation of the National Convention, which had earlier adopted the fundamental and detailed principles for drafting a new Constitution.5 The draft Constitution has 15 chapters and is available on the internet and copies of the draft are being sold in shops in Myanmar.

    Doubts about the fairness of the referendum have been repeatedly raised by the domestic opposition and others, who have criticised measures like advance voting, absentee voting, and the failure to allow international observers and media. The NLD and others have been campaigning for Voting ‘No” in the referendum, while the State apparatus has been advocating a ‘Yes’ vote. The New Light of Myanmar, a Government newspaper, headlined the message that “To approve the State Constitution is a national duty of the entire people today. Let us all cast “Yes” vote in the national interest.6” The US-based Human Rights Watch has said that the referendum would not be free and fair because of the failure of the junta to allow free discussion of the pros and cons of the draft Constitution.

    Myanmar has had two constitutions till date: the one framed in 1947 accorded some states the right to secede after ten years. The present draft Constitution (Chapter II, Article 7) explicitly rules out such a possibility: “No part of the territory of the Union, namely regions, states, Union territories and self administered areas etc shall ever secede from the Union.” The 1974 Constitution was Myanmar’s second and was introduced following a referendum. That referendum was held under very different circumstances. The then British Ambassador in Rangoon reported back to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that “it is not too great a problem to persuade people to vote for the Constitution – to most people any Constitution (and this one is not bad) is preferable to none.” Today, if the same logic were applied, the people of Myanmar should be overjoyed about the new draft as they have also missed a Constitution for a prolonged period of time (since 1988), but that may not really be the case. In the referendum held in 1974, the percentage of vote had been the highest in the ‘Burman’ Burma and the smallest in Shan State where insurgency was then raging (see Appendix). While that criterion may still hold, the additional factor of the cyclone adds a new dimension to the problem as the areas worst affected were Yangon and the Ayeyawady delta (Burman dominated).

    If the 2010 elections are held they would be the first in two decades. The results of the last one, the 1990 general elections, were annulled by the State Law and Order Restoration Council on the ground that these elections had been held to elect representatives to a constitution-drafting body and not for a national assembly.7 The SLORC/SPDC formulation was a four step route, of which step four is the Referendum.

    The current upheaval follows ominously close on the heels of the upheaval which Yangon and some other cities witnessed about seven months back when the people supported by the Buddhist clergy had come out on the streets in protest against the fuel price hike.

    What is interesting (and perhaps worrying, too) is that in the September 2007 upheaval if the monks were perceived, in a sense, as the cause of the crisis, in the present upheaval (in May) they are seen by the common people as saviours. This was an opportunity which the Myanmar Tatmadaw should have snatched and utilised in mobilising the state apparatus towards disaster relief.

    India has been steadily strengthening its relations with Myanmar in recent years while seeking to quietly influence the military rulers to bring about the required transformation in the political system. Vice Sr Gen Maung Aye had recently visited India (April 2-6, 2008). Unlike during the 2004 Asian Tsunami earlier when the Indian coastline and islands were affected along with Myanmar, this time only Myanmar is the victim and the damage is serious. Myanmar, which had refused international aid in the wake of the Tsunami, has been forced to accept it this time. It is interesting that the US First Lady Laura Bush acknowledged that Myanmar was more likely to accept aid from a neighbour like India than from the United States. Perhaps that is understandable because the US had just announced the award of the Congressional Gold Medal to Aung San Suu Kyi. India’s relief effort was also acknowledged by Myanmar. India sent two naval vessels (INS Rana and INS Kirpan) and two AN-32 aircraft carrying relief supplies on May 7. Two other IL-76 aircraft reached Yangon on May 8 and May 10.

    According to reports, Myanmar’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology had advance information (a week before) about the impending cyclone from at least two sources: the Indian Meteorology Department, and the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Bangkok. On the face of it, Myanmar disregarding India’s warnings about the impending disaster appear puzzling. However, it is conceivable that the SPDC was afraid about upsetting the build-up to the referendum, which a public scare would have created, and hence did not give the warning the importance or prominence it deserved.

    Could India have done more to persuade Myanmar regarding the urgency of the situation? Perhaps Indian diplomacy would have had greater impact if closer and harmonious links had been previously established between the meteorological departments of the two countries. In-house training to Myanmar’s environment, weather and meteorological experts in Indian institutions would not only impart the right kind of expertise to concerned personnel but also establish the appropriate linkages and bonds at the level of experts which could prove crucial in times of natural calamities. Given that non-traditional security issues are generally likely to engage the attention of Indian security planners in times to come, especially in the Indian Ocean region, it would be appropriate that institutional linkages are established beforehand. Possibly, a nodal agency in New Delhi could help network with various government and non-government agencies dealing with environmental issues.