GOVERNMENT IN MYANMAR
Government type: parliamentary government led by a military-backed political party took power in March 2011. Before that Myanmar was led by a military junta. Myanmar is still largely under the control of centralized bureaucracy run by the army and its mass organization.
According to Countries and Their Cultures: “The military has ruled the country since 1962. In the face of growing opposition to the government and its socialist policies, Ne Win and President San Yu resigned in July 1988, and widespread civil unrest followed. General Saw Muang formed a new military regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and abolished much of the socialist system. Elections were held for the 485-member People's Assembly in 1990. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won 396 seats, while the military-backed party won only 10. The People's Assembly was never convened, and many of its leaders were arrested or forced into exile. The military began drafting a new constitution in 1992, but this task has not been completed. The regime changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. The council included a chairman and twenty other members. The government formed by the council consists of a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers, and thirty-seven ministers. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]
Hong Sar Channaibanya, a Burmese-born Australian, wrote: “Burmese people in general have long lived with a deep mistrust of Burmese government for half a century. People are not familiar with the rule of law evident in a democratic society. They do not have any expectation that the state will be involved in issues such as drink driving, domestic violence and child discipline. [Source: Hong Sar Channaibanya, Canberra, Australia May 2010]
Administrative Divisions: Myanmar is divided into seven states and seven divisions. The divisions are predominantly Bamar. The states, in essence, are divisions which are home to particular ethnic minorities. The administrative divisions are further subdivided into townships, wards, and villages. Major cities are divided into districts called townships. The states (pyi ne-myar, singular - pyi ne) in Myanmar includes Chin State, Kachin State, Kayin State, Kayah State , Mon State, Rakhine (Arakan) State and Shan State. The divisions, or region, (taing-myar, singular - taing) in Myanmar consists of Ayeyarwady Division, Bago Division , Magway Division, Mandalay Division , Sagaing Division , Tanintharyi Division and Yangon Division. The capital is a union territory: Nay Pyi Taw.
Capital: Nay Pyi Taw is the administrative capital. Yangon (Rangoon) is the economic and former administrative capital. During it history the capital of Burma-Myanmar and the location of the capital has changed 10 times.
New Government in Myanmar
The military's unbroken, 49-year grip on power officially ended in March 2011, when the ruling State Peace and Development Council—Myanmar’s junta—was officially dissolved after a swearing-in ceremony for the new civilian government, making way for a nominally civilian government led mostly by retired generals.
Myanmar’s parliament convened in January 2011 and selected former Prime Minister Thein Sein as president. Although the vast majority of national-level appointees named by Thein Sein are former or current military officers, the government has initiated a series of political and economic reforms leading to a substantial opening of the long-isolated country. Under Burma’s 2008 constitution, the joint parliament is tasked with selecting a president and two vice presidents.
A general election was held in Myanmar on November 7, 2010, in accordance with the new constitution which was approved in a referendum held in May 2008. Thirty-seven parties contested places in the bicameral national parliament and 14 regional assemblies. United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is allied to the military regime, won 80 percent of contested seats.
A total of 498 of the 664 seats in both houses of parliament were up for grabs in the 2010 election. A total of 330 of the 440 seats in the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives) were up for election. The remaining 110 seats (25 percent) were not elected, and instead reserved for military appointees (taken from Defense Services personnel, technically called Army Representatives (AR). A total of 168 of the 224 seats in the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities) were up for election. The remaining 56 seats (25 percent) were not elected, and instead reserved for military appointees (taken from Defense Services personnel, technically called Army Representatives, AR). [Source: Wikipedia +]
Myanmar Flags, Symbols and National Anthem
Myanmar Flag: Union of Myanmar adopted a new state flag on October 21, 2010 to replace the former flag in use since 1974. The design of the new flag consists of three equal horizontal stripes of yellow (top), green, and red; centered on the green band is a large white five-pointed star that partially overlaps onto the adjacent colored stripes. The design revives the triband colors used by Burma from 1943-45, during the Japanese occupation. That flag had a peacock in the middle of it.
On the launching of the new national flag in October 2010, Associated Press reported: “Military-ruled Burma unveiled a new national flag, just two weeks before an election that the government calls a major step in a transition to democracy The 2008 constitution pushed through by the military called for fresh national symbols, including a new flag whose colors of yellow, green and red would stand for solidarity, peace and tranquility, and courage and decisiveness. Still, the abrupt release of the new flag came as surprise. [Source: AP, October 21, 2010]
The old flag used between 1947 and 1974 was mostly red with a dark blue canton in the upper left hand corner. The large star in blue canton symbolized the nation. The five small stars stood for the five main tribes of Burma: the Burmese, Karens, Shans, Kachin, and Chins. The flag was adopted in 1947 after independence. The flag used between 1974 and 2010 was similar to flag the preceded it. Introduced by the socialist government of strongman Ne Win, it was mostly red with a dark blue canton in the upper left hand corner. Inside the blue canton were 14 stars, encircling a gear and a rice plant. The rice stood for agriculture; the gear, industry; and the 14 stars represented each of the 14 member states of the Union (Myanmar’s seven regions and seven states). The 14-star flag was hung upside down during the 8888 Uprising of 1988 by the protesters as a sign against the military government.
National anthem: "Kaba Ma Kyei" (Till the End of the World, Myanmar) with lyrics and music by Saya Tin. Adopted 1948, it is one of the few anthems rooted in indigenous traditions. The beginning part is a traditional Burmese anthem. Later it changes into a Western-style orchestrated work
National symbols of Burma-Myanmar have included: 1) the chinthe (mythical lion, favored by military regime and put on Myanmar banknotes and coins after 1988); 2) the peacock (one of the national animals of Burma, is strongly associated with the Konbaung monarchy and the anti-colonial nationalist movements; 3) white elephant, another symbol associated with defunct Burmese monarchy. The white elephant prized in Theravada Buddhist and also revered in Thailand. Another important mythical animal is the Pyinsarupa , a figure made of parts of five animals: the antlers of the deer, the tusks and trunk of an elephant, the mane of a lion, the body of a naga (protective cobra) and the tail of a fish.
Sihasana Pallanka (Great Lion Throne) was used during Konbaung Dynasty (1752 to 1885). It weighed approximately 1 ton, was approximately 14 feet in height and was 15 feet wide and five feet long. Thrones used by the Myanmar Kings in ancient and historical times have included: 1) the Sihasana Pallanka (Lion Throne); 2) Hamsasana Pallanka (Hamsa Throne); 3) Gijasana Pallanka (Elephant Throne); 4) Mayurasana Pallanka (Peacock Throne); 5) Bhamarasana Pallanka (Bumble Bee Throne); 6) Padumasana Pallanka (Lotus Throne); 7) Sinkhasana Pallanka (Conch Shell Throne); 8) Migasana Pallanka; (Deer Throne).
Myanmar's Military Government, See Below.
Name: Burma Versus Myanmar
The British named the country Burma in honor of the Burmans, the dominant ethnic group. Initially the British called it “Further India.” In, 1989 military leaders of Burma renamed the country from Burma to Myanmar and also changed capital the name of the capital from Rangoon to Yangon. Myanmar was the pre-colonial name of Burma.
Myanmar is the local name of the country of the same way España is the local name of Spain and Nippon is the local name for Japan. And Yangon is local name of the capital of the same way Wein is the local name of Vienna. So when the leaders changed the name it was bit like the Spanish government insisting that everyone call them España. Rangoon is a corruption of Yan Kon —"end of strife”—so named by a conquering Burmese King Alaungpaya in 1753. Yangon means
Despite the fact that Myanmar is a Burmese word, Western nations, pro-democracy groups, human rights groups and Aung San Suu Kyi prefer the name Burma. Using the name Myanmar favors the government. Using Burma favors the opposition.
Country name: 1) conventional long form: Union of Burma; 2) conventional short form: Burma; 3) local long form: Pyidaungzu Myanma Naingngandaw (translated by the US Government as Union of Myanma and by the Burmese as Union of Myanmar); 4) local short form: Myanma Naingngandaw; 5) former: Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma note: since 1989 the military authorities in Burma, and the current parliamentary government, have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state; the US Government has not adopted the name, which is a derivative of the Burmese short-form name Myanma Naingngandaw [Source: CIA World Factbook]
In June 1989, Associated Press reported: “This country has officially changed its name in English to the Union of Myanmar and renamed the capital of Rangoon to Yangon, the state-run Working People's Daily said. In the law changing Burma's name, the nationality--Burmese--also was changed to Myanmar. The word for Burma and Burmese in the Burmese language are both pronounced Myanmar. The names of states, towns and other geographical sites are to be written in English according to the Burmese pronunciation. Rangoon, for example, is to be written as Yangon, which is the Burmese pronunciation of the capital. The latest change in the country's name, government officials say, is to better reflect Burma's ethnic diversity. The term Burma connotes Burman--the dominant ethnic group in the country--to the exclusion of ethnic minorities. [Source: Associated Press, June 21, 1989]
Aye Aye Win and Todd Pitman of Associated Press wrote: “Myanmar, comprising a vast array of ethnic groups, did not exist as a single entity until it was colonized by the British in the 19th century. The country achieved independence in 1948 and took the English-language name used by its former rulers, Burma. But it was formally known in Burmese, the national language, as "myanma naing ngan" or more colloquially as "bama pyi" or "country of Burma." Both those usages persist, and the national anthem still refers to "bama pyi." When the now-defunct army junta altered the name in 1989, the change applied only to the English-language title. [Source: Aye Aye Win and Todd Pitman, Associated Press November 19, 2012]
History of the Burma-Myanmar Name Game
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Both names have long been used in the Burmese language, and vary from a common term. Myanmar is seen as more formal or literary and Burma, more vernacular. The first written reference to Myanmar, a term meaning fast and strong people, appears on an inscription in 1102, although the nation wasn't unified until the British annexed the area to their Indian empire in the 19th century. The British "imperial tongue" stumbled over Myanmar and adopted Burma, reportedly similar to the name Birmania given to the country by Portuguese traders. At independence in 1948, the country's international name remained Burma, although in Burmese, the mother tongue of 68 percent of the population, it was known formally as "Myanma Naingngan" and more colloquially as "Bama pyi." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2012 <>]
“The confusion started in 1989 when the ruling generals announced the country would henceforth be known as "Union of Myanmar." Rangoon would be Yangon and Mandalay would become Mawlamyine, according to the decree. In its propaganda, the government argued that Myanmar was a more inclusive term that embraced the country's 130-plus ethnic communities, not just the majority Burmese. Its policy nonetheless "Burmanized" many place names, angering minority groups. “<>
“Another (unspoken) reason for the name change was to demonize the popular pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said Sein Win, chief editor with Mizzima, a publication run by exile Burmese that recently relocated to Myanmar. "It was not only a message that she was a foreign student, but also that she had a foreign husband, had a Western mentality" and was therefore a traitor." The United Nations, Germany, Japan and stalwart ally China quickly accepted the change. But dissidents, human rights organizations and such countries as the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia insisted on using Burma, arguing that no elected legislature had sanctioned the change. The European Union, which sat firmly on the fence, referred in documents to "Burma/Myanmar." <>
Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the Washington Post, November: “Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, justified his newspaper's decision to follow the governments' leads essentially in terms of good manners: "It is not our business what a country wants to call itself." Indeed it isn't, but is it that country's business what we call it? I once wrote an article for Lelyveld's paper about the brilliant musical life of the country its citizens call Suomi, but that might have puzzled readers, so I called it Finland. And if Myanmar, why not Deutschland or España? All this incessant, restless change makes language harder to understand. British soldiers used to write acronymic endearments on the back of envelopes to wives or sweethearts: "Holland" was "Hope Our Love Lasts And Never Dies," and "Burma" was "Be Undressed Ready My Angel." What can Myanmar possibly stand for? [Source: Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Washington Post, November 4, 2007]
Myanmar or Burma?— and Its Political Overtones
Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It was a subtle, but effective, way for critics to rankle the brutal generals running the country during the darkest days of global isolation: Call the nation Burma rather than Myanmar. The message: We don't believe your rule is legitimate. Over the years, that tug of words became highly politicized. "Everyone gets confused with the terminology," said Tin May Thein, executive director of Asia21 MJ Co., a Yangon consultancy. "It can make you go a bit crazy." Now that Myanmar is opening up to the world, easing media restrictions and freeing more political prisoners, the linguistic and political battle lines are blurring. And just as the world eventually accepted Zimbabwe for Rhodesia and Burkina Faso for Upper Volta, Myanmar will probably gain the upper hand despite the blank stares the word draws from some outsiders. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2012]
“President Obama dropped a few strategic Myanmars during his November 2012 visit, to the delight of his hosts. Nearly a year earlier, his secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, avoided both names, mostly using "this country," prompting the Reuters wire service headline, "Clinton Lauds Change in a Country With No Name." Such name games continue to irk the Myanmar government. "You might think this is a small matter, but the use of 'Myanmar' is a matter of national integrity," Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said."Using the correct name of the country shows equality and mutual respect." <>
“Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, influential in shaping Western policies toward Myanmar, continues to use Burma in the belief that the government is still far from democratic. "I still object to it," she told reporters recently. "So I will always refer to this country as Burma until the Burmese people decide what they want it to be called." She recently softened, adding in a speech that people were free to choose. But her insistence on using Burma has also spurred some ordinary Burmese to follow suit. In the summer of 2012, while Suu Kyi was in Europe, the Myanmar government criticized her preference for Burma. <>
“Some say the government has a point. "I think in their hearts, they feel hurt by this," said Morten Pedersen, senior lecturer with the Australian Defense Force Academy. "I think it would be better if Suu Kyi started using Myanmar now that it's something worth being a part of." Some diplomats still use Myanmar with government officials and Burma with Suu Kyi or foreigners, a path Obama followed during his six-hour visit. The fact he used the "M" word at all was warmly received in the capital, Naypyidaw, with Myanmar presidential advisor Ko Ko Hlaing terming its use "very positive" and an "acknowledgment of Myanmar's government." Since the military stepped aside last year, Myanmar has eased media restrictions, released most political prisoners, sworn off weapons trade with North Korea and allowed Suu Kyi to run for parliament...One reason Burma remains popular is a practical one. "In English, it's awkward to say 'Myanmarese' — grammatically, it's totally incorrect," said Thuta Aung, managing director of Yangon's HamsaHub, a business development firm. "You need an adjective and the only suitable one seems like Burmese. But as a country, it's Myanmar." <>
“Washington isn't expected to swap two syllables for three as its official policy immediately, however, perhaps waiting until it's convinced reforms are irreversible. Amid all the hand-wringing, some question the whole debate. "Either way, your identity isn't lost," said U Muang Muang Thein, a poet and English teacher from Yangon. "Intellectuals think way too much about this stuff, ordinary people just accept it." Adds Wunna Mar Jay, a boxing promoter and board member of the Myanmar Journalists Union: "With all the other problems we have to solve, this is pretty minor. I'm 50 and I'm used to Burma. My son is 20, born during the dictatorship, and he only knows Myanmar. It's really no problem either way." <>
Aye Aye Win and Todd Pitman of Associated Press wrote: “ Officially at least, America still calls this Southeast Asian nation Burma, the favored appellation of dissidents and pro-democracy activists who opposed the former military junta's move to summarily change its name 23 years ago. President Barack Obama used that name during his historic visit, but he also called Burma what its government and many other people have been calling it for years: Myanmar. [Source: Aye Aye Win and Todd Pitman, Associated Press November 19, 2012 /*\]
“Obama's use of that single word was warmly welcomed by top government officials here, who immediately imbued it with significance. "It doesn't change the fact that the United States government position is still Burma," he said. "But we've said we recognize that different people call this country by different names. Our view is that is something we can continue to discuss." The issue is so sensitive that Obama's aides had said earlier he would likely avoid mentioning either politically charged name. But he used both during his six-hour trip — "Myanmar" during morning talks with Thein Sein, "Burma" afterward while visiting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. /*\
“Suu Kyi herself was criticized by the government for calling the nation Burma during a trip to Europe over the summer. The government said she should use the proper name, "Republic of the Union of Myanmar," as stated in the constitution. But Suu Kyi has said "it's for each individual to make his or her own choice as to which he or she uses." /*\
Road Map to Democracy
In August 2003, Myanmar’s military regime proposed a “road map” for reconciliation with the opposition. The terms of the road map were defined by the military regime. It called for drafting a constitution and placing it before a referendum. If approved the new constitution would form the basis for a “free and fair” parliament. At the time the regime said democracy was far away because the opposition “NLD failed to work hand-in-hand with the government.” Gen. Khin Nyunt—the former intelligence chief and prime minister who was purged in 2004—was the general who proposed a "roadmap to democracy” and other reforms. One his motives, one diplomat told the New York Times, "Khin Nyunt and those around him may have decided that it is time for Burma to re-enter the world. Not because they have to. Perhaps just because it is embarrassing for the generals to be such pariahs in the world."
The seven stages of “roadmap to democracy” were: 1) First Phase - To reassemble the National Convention, which had been suspended since 1996; 2) Second Phase - To implement step by step the requisite tasks for the founding of a democratic system when the National Convention has been successfully concluded; 3) Third Phase - To draw up a draft constitution based on the general concepts and detailed principles advocated by the National Convention; 4) Fourth Phase - To hold a national referendum in order to endorse the draft constitution; 5) Fifth Phase - To hold free and fair elections for the formation of the required national legislative bodies (Hluttaw); 6) Sixth Phase - To convene the meeting of elected representative to the Hluttaw; 7) Seventh Phase - The leaders, government and authoritative bodies elected by the Hluttaw to continue with the task of constructing a new democratic state. [Source: Wikipedia]
In August 2005, after a major purge and amidst a wave of repression, AFP reported: “The military government is now showing increasing signs of further centralising its power and tightening up its control in every respect,” said one local analyst. Diplomats have noted that Myanmar is making life more difficult for United Nations agencies in Yangon, as well as for non-governmental organizations...The junta is also returning its focus to implementing what it calls its seven-point “road map to democracy”. It has organized a series of public rallies at which military-sponsored groups as well as “reserve forces” such as war veterans roundly denounce “internal and external destructionists”, condemn international groups like the UN’s International Labor Organization, and back the military’s political agenda. Veteran Myanmar politician Win Naing said the junta is obsessed with its pursuit of the road map, which Western governments and the U.N. have dismissed as a sham. “The military authorities firmly believe that their long declared seven-point political road map is the only way out from their present predicament,” Win Naing told AFP. “They are therefore totally determined to go through with it, like it or not.”[Source: AFP, August 15, 2005]
On the junta insistence to sticks with "democracy roadmap" after the protests and crackdown in September 2007, Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “Myanmar supremo Than Shwe, leader of the ruling military, has vowed that the only path to political reform is via the junta's own "roadmap to democracy", which Western governments have dismissed as a sham. "We have declared a seven-step roadmap towards a democratic state," the Senior General said in a speech reported in official media. "The seven-step roadmap is the only means to smooth transition towards a new state." [Source: Reuters, Aung Hla Tun, November 17, 2007 <>]
“His words suggest that any discussions about political reform with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will have to take place within the framework of the junta's existing plan, which is now at stage three -- writing a new constitution. Stage one -- drawing up the outline of the charter -- ended in September 2007 after a National Convention that first met 14 years ago, but which hit trouble when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) refused to attend while she was under house arrest. A drafting commission of 54 people handpicked by the military has now been appointed and will hold their first meeting on Dec. 1. There has been no indication of how long they will take to complete their work. <>
“Western governments have dismissed the convention and its output as a blueprint for the army legitimising its grip on power after 45 years of unbroken military rule. Under the outlined charter, the head of the army will be the most powerful person in the country, with the ability to appoint key cabinet positions and suspend the constitution in the event of an emergency that he defines. Than Shwe described his government, which emerged in the early 1990s from the wreckage of late dictator Ne Win's rule, as a "transitive government of historical necessity which is undertaking a state transformation." "The road that we have been treading since 1988 till today was not a road of roses," Than Shwe was quoted as saying. "It was a rough road with internal and foreign political machinations, disturbances and obstacles that we had to overcome." <>
Myanmar’s Constitution Convention
Myanmar was without a constitution for two decades after 1988. Upon taking power in September 1988, the military-based State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) suspended the 1974 constitution. The SLORC called a constitutional convention in 1993, but it was suspended in 1996 when the National League for Democracy boycotted it, calling it undemocratic. It was held intermittently after that.
The military government's excuse for not holding elections through much of the 1990s and 2000s was the drafting of constitution, which it said needed the approval of all 135 ethnic groups to pass, a near impossible task, especially considering meeting were rarely conducted. In 1999, Lt. Col Hla Mon said that free election would be held in "two or three years" once the draft of constitution was finished. He said that 60 percent of the constitution had been discussed and working on it was continuing.
In May 2004, Myanmar reconvened the National Convention, without Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy, to finish drafting the new constitution at a convention center about 40 kilometers north of Yangon. Two months of closed door discussions with 1,076 delegates were held. Most of the delegates were hand picked by the government. They included workers, businessmen and government employees. About 40 percent of them represented minorities. The government billed the meeting as the first stage towards restoring democracy on the “roadmap to democracy.” The opposition dismissed it as a sham. The National League of Democracy (NLD) refused to participate because of Suu Kyi’s detention.
The constitution convention was stopped in February 2005 and reopened in December 2005. The junta said that it wanted a large chunk of all the seats in the legislature to be reserved for the the armed forces and insisted on other measures that ensured its held on to power and the integrity of the state. “It’s a farce,” one 89-year-old retired government employee told AP. “I don’t have faith in the whole process, which is done for [the junta’s] own convenience, not for the good of the country. It’s obvious they are not sincere. Most of the delegates are not representative of the people.”
The junta adopted a policy of vagueness and foot-dragging. They said Aung San Suu Kyi would be released soon but never released her. They said a constitution would be put together soon but let the drafting convention drag on and on. Delegates who openly expressed their views faced potential arrest and imprisonment. Aung San Suu Kyi did not participate in the convention. Members of the NLP said they would not participate in the convention if it was conducted on the SPDC’s terms.
Myanmar's Constitutional Convention Create a “Charter for Thugocracy ”
The final session of the constitution convention started in July 2007. In September 2007, after 14 years, the constitution convention was finally completed, marking the completion of the first step on the seven-step “road map to democracy.” As before critics dismissed the whole endeavor a sham. About 1,000 delegates showed up at Nyaung-Hna-Pin convention center, about 45 kilometers north of Yangon, for the closing ceremony.
The Economist reported: After 14 years of intermittent meetings and tortured prevarication, a constitutional commission appointed by Myanmar's junta has come up with the document outlining the principles to underpin a new constitution which will give a thin democratic façade to continued military rule. At the closing session of the convention, Myanmar's acting prime minister, General Thein Sein, presented its conclusion, offering what the regime regards as “disciplined democracy”, as a roaring success” despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) were excluded from the process. So have the numerous groups representing ethnic insurgencies. [Source: The Economist, September 6, 2007 \\\]
Under the guidelines, a quarter of the seats in parliament will be reserved for military appointees. The president will be a military man, and the army will control important ministries, including defence and home affairs. The army would set its own budget, and would retain the right to declare a state of emergency and seize power whenever deemed necessary. The charter would ban Miss Suu Kyi, as the widow of a foreigner, from holding elected office. It has also disappointed the hopes of the country's various rebel ethnic groups for greater autonomy. On the pretext of “national security” the guidelines also severely curtail civil liberties and the rights of political parties. \\\
May 2008 Constitutional Referendum
In April, 2008, as one step on its long-promised “road map” to democracy, the dictatorship ratified a new constitution. The 194-page charter was on sale for $1 at private stalls and government bookstores and sold well. "Fifty copies sold like hot cakes in less than an hour," a roadside bookstall owner told Reuters. "I never thought our people would be so keen on the constitution."
Despite the Cyclone Nargis tragedy, the junta proceeded with its May 2008 constitutional referendum, the first vote in Burma since 1990. The military regime rejected United Nations suggestions that independent observers be allowed to monitor the referendum vote. Foreign media was not allowed into Myanmar to cover the vote either. There were reports of military agents standing watch over ballot boxes — and stuffing them — and threatening citizens with fines and prison sentences if they didn't vote the way the regime demanded.
Burma's army-drafted constitution was overwhelmingly approved (by 92.4 percent of the 22 million voters with alleged voter turnout of 99 percent) on May 10 in the first phase of a two-stage referendum amid Cyclone Nargis. The new charter paved the way for multi-party elections in 2010 that would end five decades of military rule while guaranteeing the military 25 percent of seats in parliament. NLD spokesman Nyan Win, condemned the vote, saying: "This referendum was full of cheating and fraud across the country; In some villages, authorities and polling station officials ticked the ballots themselves and did not let the voters do anything."
Constitution: approved by national referendum in May 2008; reformed by a series of acts in 2011.
Progressive constitutional reform in the early 1920s led to a legislature with limited powers, a university and more autonomy for Burma within the administration of India. The British separated Burma Province from British India in 1937 and granted the colony a new constitution calling for a fully elected assembly, with many powers given to the Burmese, but this proved to be a divisive issue as some Burmese felt that this was a ploy to exclude them from any further Indian reforms
On July 19, 1947, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San and nearly his entire cabinet were assassinated in a hail of machine gun bullets at a cabinet meeting where a new constitution was being drawn up. Granting ethnic minorities right to secession in 10 years was one of the provisions of the 1947 Constitution. A new constitution was promulgated in January 1974 that resulted in the creation of a People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) that held supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority, and local People's Councils. Ne Win became the president of the new government. The 1974 totalitarian constitution was the second in “modern Myanmar.” Support was said to be 90 percent after some “no” votes where changed to “yes” votes. In 1988 The military swept aside the Constitution of 1974 in favor of martial law that was supposed to saty in place until a new constitution could be drawn up.
In May, 2008, as one step on its long-promised “road map” to democracy, Myanmar ratified a new constitution, which led to the country’s first elections in twenty years. The process to create the constitution began in 1993 when nearly 700 delegates from eight categories attended the National Convention in Rangoon to make recommendation on the new-state constitution. Most of the negotiations take place in secret.
Myanmar’s New 2008 Constitution
The 2008 constitution went into effect in January of that year upon the convening of the first joint session of the national parliament. A total of 104 so-called constitution principals were laid down. For the most part they are undemocratic and only sure up the military’s hold on power.
The new constitution guarantees a "leading role" for the military. It automatically allocates 25 percent of the parliamentary seats to unelected representatives of the military (enough to block any amendment). It also bars people from the nation's presidency if they or any of their relatives are foreign citizens. That effectively prevents Suu Kyi from ascending to the presidency because she is the widow of a British national, Michael Aris, and their two children were born abroad and do not live in Myanmar.Suu Kyi told Scott Kraft of the Los Angeles Times, "That new constitution is not headed for democracy. In the first place they are not allowing political parties to operate effectively, and without political parties there can be no multiparty democracy.”
The Economist reported: “Under the guidelines, a quarter of the seats in parliament will be reserved for military appointees. The president will be a military man, and the army will control important ministries, including defence and home affairs. The army would set its own budget, and would retain the right to declare a state of emergency and seize power whenever deemed necessary....It has also disappointed the hopes of the country's various rebel ethnic groups for greater autonomy. On the pretext of “national security” the guidelines also severely curtail civil liberties and the rights of political parties. [Source: The Economist , September 6, 2007]
Provisions of New 2008 Constitution
Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker: “The constitution created a civilian-dominated government, with a two-house Parliament that would meet at least once a year, and an elected head of state. Power remains vested in the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and his military council. Twenty-five per cent of parliamentary seats are set aside for military officers, and a seventy-five-per-cent-plus vote in Parliament is required to amend the constitution, meaning that the military can always veto proposed changes. Human rights are enumerated, but the constitution holds that, if circumstances require, the military can retake authority and those rights can be abrogated. [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]
The constitution grants limited rights to freedom of religion. Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 354 states that “every citizen shall be at liberty … if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality … to develop … [the] religion they profess and customs without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths.” [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 ^]
The constitution does not transfer power to a civilian administration (key ministries remain in the hands of the military) or provide greater autonomy for Myanmar's 100-plus ethnic minorities. The army commander-in- chief will be the most powerful man in the country, able to appoint key ministers and assume power "in times of emergency." The military will hold 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament and hold veto power over its decisions.
Jared Genser wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the new constitution “provides the military, which is immune from prosecution, with the right to overturn any decision of the other branches of government. The leader of the military has the power to appoint one-quarter of both houses of parliament — all that is needed to veto any constitutional amendment. Perhaps most chilling is the constitution's establishment of a National Defense and Security Council, a vague institution that appears to be merely a new moniker for the State Peace and Development Council, otherwise known as the Burmese junta. [Source: Jared Genser, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2010]
Typo or Trick in the New 2008 Constitution?
In April 2008, Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “In Myanmar, the devil really is in the detail. Close scrutineers of the former Burma's new constitution are wondering whether the omission of four key words is just a typographical error or a dastardly trick by the military junta to keep power forever. In a widely published outline of the charter, Myanmar's voters were led to believe that changing the constitution would need approval from 75 percent of parliament and then a simple majority -- "more than half of all eligible voters" -- in a referendum. However, when the full document leaked out a week ago, many were surprised to see constitutional tweaks would need approval from "all eligible voters", a proviso that in reality makes any amendments impossible in a country of 53 million people. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, April 5, 2008 :::]
Whether the omission of "more than half of" is deliberate or accidental is unclear, especially since Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, in a rare news conference last month, said the constitution would be open to gradual improvement after the May referendum. Some junta opponents who were prepared to swallow the army-drafted charter, if only because it could be changed later, were alarmed by the omission. :::
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) of detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is convinced the junta, the latest face of 46 years of military rule, is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the people. "It must have been changed purposely," party spokesman Nyan Win, a lawyer by training, told Reuters. The referendum discrepancy is not the only difference between the full constitution and the "detailed basic principles" that have appeared in the state-run media. Another sentence that appears to have been slipped in at the last minute is an amnesty clause protecting any members of the State Peace and Development Council, as the junta calls itself, from future legal action. :::
Head of Government in Myanmar
Head of government: President Thein Sein (in power since February 4 2011). Chief of state: President Thein Sein (since 4 February 2011); Vice President Sai Mouk Kham (since 3 February 2011); Vice President Nyan Htun (since 15 August 2012). [Source: CIA World Factbook]
The president serves a five-year term and is elected by the parliament from among three vice presidents. Myanmar has two vice presidents, and the military has the right to name one of them. Parliamentary approval of his nomination is just a formality. The upper house, the lower house, and military members of the parliament each nominate one vice president The cabinet is appointed by the president and confirmed by the parliament
The constitution bars people from the nation's presidency if they or any of their relatives are foreign citizens. That effectively prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from ascending to the presidency because she is the widow of a British national, Michael Aris, and their two children were born abroad and do not live in Myanmar.
According to Time magazine: “The presidential palace tries to take its architectural cues from Versailles but has ended up looking like something the Real Housewives of New Jersey might have designed. Its 100 or so rooms overflow with orchids and are lit by exuberant chandeliers.” Associated Press reported that the pillared compound, armed guards greet visitors and lead them “through a two-story entrance hall that opened onto a 15-foot rock sculpture topped with a serene alpine mural.” Reuters called the presidential palace “a hugely overgrown golf clubhouse conjured out of marble and enormous chandeliers” with a “bridge over a moat” and tight security. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013; Associated Press, 2008; Reuters, December 2011]
Myanmar President Thein Sein told the Washington Post in May 2013 that the military "will always have a special place" in government. The military governed Myanmar for five decades and retains a quarter of parliamentary seats, giving it an effective veto over constitutional amendments — including changes that would be required to allow Suu Kyi to run for the presidency in crucial 2015 elections.
Myanmar's Military Regime
Before the new government came to power in 2011 the supreme decision-making body of Myanmar was the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), a military junta with the head of state being the senior general who held the posts of "Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council" and "Commander in Chief of the Defence Services" as well as the Minister of Defence. Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who was also the commander in chief of the armed forces, the Tatmadaw.Than Shwe, was the leader of the SPDC and the head of the Myanmar government.
The junta had a cabinet but it had now power to make key policy decisions. Under the SPDC Myanmar has a Prime Minister. Its power has traditionally been regarded as a ceremonial position under the control of the military junta that rules the country. The majority of ministry and cabinet posts are held by military officers, with the exceptions being the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labour, and the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development, posts which are held by civilians.
After the 1988 demonstrations, Myanmar’s military regime began calling itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a body led and formally founded by an unpredictable and deeply reviled general named Saw Maung. In November 1997, SLORC changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
According to Countries and Their Cultures: “ Political leadership revolves around political intrigues and struggles for power within the military. From 1962 until 1988, General Ne Win was the dominant political figure, with other officers and their associates jockeying for positions underneath him. General Than Swe's hold on power since 1988 has been far less absolute. The officers holding positions in SLORC/SPDC tend to be roughly the same age and have roughly similar backgrounds and values. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]
The consultants Maplecroft said in 2013: “The military will use the security situation as a means to maintain strong influence over the democratic transition.” Maung Zarni in the Asia Times: “Rather, the impunity and inaction are more likely anchored in Naypyidaw’s strategic calculation to create a general climate of fear and uncertainty, consistent with the divide-and-rule tactics it has always used to exert unrivaled control and influence over the state and economy.” [Source: William Boot, The Irrawaddy, April 11, 2013]
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “ Self-righteous seclusion extended to the highest ranks. Hla Maung Shwe, a businessman whose brother is commandant of the National Defense University, told me, “In the Army for twenty-nine years, my brother had one chance at exposure—a trip to Thailand for three days.” Describing the nation’s elite, Hla Maung Shwe said, “Our mind-set is in the Stone Age.”
Legislature: 664 seat bicameral assembly. Parliament's powers are defined by the new 2008 constitution, which is vague and mandates an extensive role for the military.
Legislative branch: bicameral: 1) The House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw), comprised of 224 seats—168 directly elected and 56 appointed by the military—with members serving five-year terms; and 2) The House of Representatives (Pythu Hluttaw), comprised of 440 seats— 330 directly elected and 110 appointed by the military—with members serving five-year terms.
Describing the new legislature building in Myanmar’s new capital of Naypyidaw, Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “The capital does have one concession to democracy: a parliament complex consisting of 28 gargantuan pagoda-topped buildings rising above two faux suspension bridges. When parliament opened the 659 new MPs were herded into this self-contained world and kept in isolation for weeks. No media or spectators were allowed; the MPs themselves were forbidden to use mobile phones or email. "It was sad and funny," a Burmese businessman in Yangon says. "Here were all these MPs launching a new democracy, and yet they were huddled there like prisoners." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011 ==]
Myanmar’s parliament met in January 2011 and selected former Prime Minister Thein Sein as president and officially in convened in February 2011. In a speech to military retirees, before he himself retired, long-time junta leader Than Shwe said that the transition to a parliamentary system meant various parties with different opinions would appear, but he warned that the new parties should "avoid anything that leads to harming state interests".
Montlake wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: Myanmar “took another step toward civilian rule after nearly five decades of military dictatorship with the convening of its new, semielected parliament. But the military seems set to retain its grip on the process, to the frustration of regime critics. The joint parliamentary session was held in the regime’s purpose-built capital, Nyapyidaw. Some 600 legislators were bussed to the parliament complex under tight security, and reporters and other observers were kept away. Exiled Burmese news media reported that lawmakers were unable to bring cameras, mobile phones, and any recording devices to the parliament. Such secrecy has become a hallmark of Burmese politics. =[Source: Simon Montlake, Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2011 =]
“Under Burma’s 2008 constitution, the joint parliament is tasked with selecting a president and two vice presidents. The military bloc in parliament has the right to nominate their own candidate and is allied to the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which won 80 percent of contested seats.
Political Reforms in Myanmar
Reforms initiated by Thein Sein have included floating the Myanmar's currency, allowing the establishment of unions and workers organizations, creating a human rights commission and launching rural development schemes. In early 2012, media and Internet restrictions were eased and the opposition was allowed to participate in the electoral process.
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Since taking office in March, 2011, the former generals who make up Burma’s first civilian government in forty-nine years have taken many steps in the direction of democracy than Burma has seen in four decades. They have relaxed media censorship, legalized the right to unionize, and allowed members of the main opposition party to compete for office; they have also distanced themselves from Burma’s longtime patron, China. In June, Australia took the symbolic step of abandoning the name Burma. The sudden access to a new market on China’s southern border has inspired flights of extraordinary optimism. “If I could put all my money into Myanmar, I would,” Jim Rogers, the Singapore-based American investor, declared. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]
U.S. envoy Kurt M. Campbell wrote in Foreign Policy: “Thein Sein's government has released hundreds of political prisoners; eased draconian restrictions on speech, assembly, and movement; established cease-fires with most insurgent ethnic groups; and launched a wobbly electoral process that eventually allowed Aung San Suu Kyi's once-banned opposition party, the National League for Democracy, to take legislative seats. [Source: Kurt M. Campbell, Foreign Policy, December 2012]
According to the February 2013 report: “U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma”: “In the 18 months since his government assumed office, President Thein Sein has driven a reform agenda aided by a group of reform oriented Ministers in his Cabinet, two reform-minded parliamentary speakers, and by the hard work of many others within and outside government who share a vision for a stronger, more prosperous, fair, and peaceful Burma. I would also highlight that these developments have been a vindication of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stalwart support for reform and opening in Burma. With the tide of reform she helped put in motion coming in, Daw Suu remains a unique symbol of hope and freedom in Burma, even as she immerses herself in the difficult daily work of improving the quality of democracy as a parliamentarian in her country. [Source: U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma, February 18, 2013 **]
“Reforms after Parliament convened in January 2011 have included allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to contest parliamentary by-elections on 1 April 2012, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, reaching preliminary peace agreements with 10 of the 11 major armed ethnic groups, enacting laws that provide better protections for basic human rights, and gradually reducing restrictions on freedom of the press, association, and civil society. At least due in part to these reforms, Aung San Suu Kyi now serves as an elected Member of Parliament and chair of the Committee for Rule of Law and Tranquility. Most political parties have begun building their institutions in preparation for the next round of general elections in 2015. **
In November 2011, Associated Press reported: “ Myanmar’s Parliament approved a law guaranteeing the right to protest, one of a series of reforms under the new elected government. The law is significant because the right to protest had not previously existed in Myanmar. The protest law says would-be participants must seek permission five days before the event and provide details about slogans and speakers. Protests are prohibited at factories, hospitals and government offices. Staging a protest without permission carries a penalty of one year in prison. [Source: AP, November 25, 2011]
In November 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Myanmar appears to be making some "real changes" to its political system. "It appears that there are real changes taking place on the ground and we support these early efforts at reform," she said. Clinton noted reports of "substantive dialogue" between the government and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and changes to the Southeast Asian country's laws on labor and political party registration. "Many questions remain, including the government's continued detention of political prisoners and whether reform will be sustained and extended to include peace and reconciliation in the ethnic minority areas," Clinton said. [Source: Paul Eckert, Reuters, November 12, 2011]
See Reforms under Thein Sein, History
Elections in Myanmar
The voting age in Myanmar is 18. The ballots used by voters feature the party’s name along with an image or emblem of the party. Party emblems are used in Myanmar as a visual marker for voters unable to read.
The last elections in Myanmar was held on November 7, 2010. The next is to be held in December 2015)
Election results from the November 2010 elections. House of Nationalities - percent of vote by party - USDP 74.8 percent, others (NUP, SNDP, RNDP, NDF, AMRDP) 25.2 percent; seats by party - USDP 129, others 39; House of Representatives - percent of vote by party - USDP 79.6 percent, others (NUP, SNDP, RNDP, NDF, AMRDP) 20.4 percent; seats by party - USDP 259, others 71
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014