Commentary: Constitution and the role of citizens

Aung Htoo

Jun 11, 2008 (DVB), The constitution of a country must be directly relevant to the real life of citizens living in that country. Otherwise, it is just a useless piece of paper.

The people of Burma have recently suffered the worst cyclone in the country's history. Victims have yet to receive effective aid distribution a month after the cyclone devastated the country because the military regime has used its absolute power to obstruct international aid. As a result, a large number of people continue to die and hundreds of thousands of others continue to bear enormous hardship.

Nine days after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, a powerful earthquake hit southwest China with a devastating impact on people's lives , thousands were killed, an unknown number of people were buried under rubble, and buildings were wiped out. But the government of China immediately began effective relief operations to save the lives of its own citizens, and also accepted international aid within a few days of the disaster. United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recently congratulated China for its impressive earthquake relief efforts.

Why did Burma and China respond differently to their natural disasters? It would be wrong to think it was because the Chinese leaders are kind and Burma's generals are cruel. It was instead because of the different political systems and constitutions in the two countries.

The backbone of China's political system is the political party. In particular, the axis of the political system in China is the Communist Party of China, a very influential political party that was founded in 1921. Under the leadership of the CPC the entire country was organised to fight against the feudal system and liberated from the yoke of feudalism.

However, CPC leaders recognised that the party had made mistakes when it led the Cultural Revolution in China between 1956 and 1966. Chinese legal experts have also remarked that the foundations of rule of law in the country were destroyed during the revolutionary period. Later, after Deng Xiaoping's four modernisation ideologies were implemented in 1974, the CPC focused on policies related to the rule of law. When the CPC was placed under the country's 1982 constitution, the party structure was not the same as it was during the 1958-61 famine.

Professor Shin Guminh from Shanghai University's Social Science Department pointed out that, in the system practised in China, "The country's policies are developed by the CPC organisations. Opportunities for public participation in policy making process are also created. So, first of all, basic principles for different policies can be found in the speeches and addresses of CPC Central Committee and Politburo leaders. Second, government officials compile details of policies in formal written language and third, the National People's Congress adopts them as laws."

Ordinary citizens in China have the rights to participate in CPC's policy making process. Government officials have to respect and follow party policies. After a policy has become a law, all (including the CPC, the government and the army) will have to obey it. Article 29 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China clearly states "all armed forces belong to the people"; thus, the Chinese army is under the administration of civilian government and the leadership of the CPC.

The Chinese government had to take care of its citizens when the earthquake hit the country because a political system was established in accordance with the constitution, which forced the government to pay serious attention to the suffering of its own people. Since there was a strong political party system in favour of civic rule the army would have to follow policies and implement working programmes adopted by the people's party.

A quick study with regard to political systems can also be made of another of Burma's neighbours, India.

A strong multiparty system based on democratic principles can be found in India. The 123-year-old Congress Party is still thriving. The Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress and Communist parties have taken leading roles in India's policy making processes. The Indian army has always been under the supervision of those political parties.

Both Burma's large neighbours, China and India, have stability and economic growth recognised by the international community. It is not generals who have brought this recognition, but the political parties that have taken the lead in policy making. They have gained this recognition due to the long-term establishment of political party systems in their countries.

Opposition leaders and parties were severely repressed in the period between 1975 and 1979 when a government led by prime minister Indra Ghandi ruled India. However, opposition leaders were well protected by a federal court with independent judiciary power granted by the then constitution. The people's political party system is still strong in Indian society.

Unfortunately, there have been problems in the people's political party system in Burma since the country proclaimed its independence in 1948. In 1962, the military staged a coup to seize power and the political party system was destroyed. Later, military leaders founded the Burmese Socialist Programme Party as a civic party but in reality it was led by the military. As a result, during the pro-democracy uprising in Burma in 1988, the BSPP was thrown out by people's power. The National League for Democracy, a civic party, emerged after the military took power again in 1988 but it has been constantly repressed by the junta. The civic party has never been able to influence the policies of the military regime.

In this critical and fragile time for the people of Burma after the cyclone, a handful of military leaders are obstructing the delivery of international aid, and using the aid shipments that manage to get in for their own benefit, namely to prolong the military dictatorship.

In fact, tens of thousands of soldiers' family members and relatives were among those affected by the cyclone. But neither the civic party nor ordinary soldiers have had the rights to participate in making policies on the receipt of international aid. They are not granted the right to do so because the people's political party system is still being crushed. Ordinary citizens and soldiers can give their opinions only when a people's political party system is in operation.

The current state constitution written by the military regime will continue to destroy the people's political party system in Burma, in particular due to Article 404, which states, "The aim of a political party must be non-disintegration of the union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty".

A people's political party system ought to aim to reflect the people's political will. Limitations on what kind of political objectives a political party should and should not have are a means of eliminating the people's political party system.

There will be no other country in the world like Burma where political parties are severely restricted by the governing body under the state constitution. The first victims of Article 404 will be political parties linked to ceasefire organisations. Then, the next target will be the NLD. It's a fair guess that the NLD will be pressured until the party is dissolved.

The military regime's Referendum Commission announced that the state constitution had been adopted with 92.48% of eligible voters casting their votes in favour of the charter. It is hard to believe that the vast majority of the voters supported the Constitution because, in reality, many of them did not have a chance to read it and many others did not even see it prior to the referendum. Despite strong domestic and international criticism, the military regime has adopted its constitution by force against the wishes of its citizens, and thus it is certain that the junta will continue along its own path.

The people of Burma will progressively suffer not only from future natural disasters but also from the severe repression of the military dictators if the country has to follow the current constitution that does not reflect the interests of the citizens.

Aung Htoo is the general secretary of the Burma Lawyers' Council

Leave a reply