Campaigns for Constitutional Reform in Myanmar

Sometimes its useful to look back in order to move forward. Last year while on field research I observed some of the rallies for constitutional amendment in Myanmar. This is my reflection on one of them.

The morning was humid, the traffic crowded, crawling by. I arrived in a beat-up taxi at Bo Sein Hman sports ground in Tamwe Township, Yangon. The rally was due to start at 8:30am, and the sports ground was already crammed full of people when I arrived. They must have arrived very early, as people were already sitting on the ground, huddled close together, knee to knee. The crowd were a mixed group of people, young and old and in-between, with the odd journalist and foreigner here and there. I wondered if members of the Special Investigation Branch were also here, probably.

The sports ground sloped down to one end where a large platform had been erected. The crowd all faced the large platform, and behind the platform was an enormous sign proclaiming the reason for the demonstration: the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the 88 Generation had joined forces to call on the government to amend section 436 of the Constitution. Section 436 contains the amendment procedure to change the 2008 Constitution. This has to be one of the most constitutionally literate people in the world, I thought to myself. In how many other countries (apart from the US) would this many people know or care about the amendment provision of their Constitution?

The gates to the ground were closed by the time I arrived, so people had spilled out onto the surrounding dirt roads, peering through the iron fence. To the left of the grounds a number of small food stalls had popped up. The food vendors were clustered around some card tables where people handed out NLD pamphlets and fliers, and encouraged people to sign the petition to amend the Constitution. Many people in the crowd proudly displayed their political allegiance by wearing NLD paraphernalia – t-shirts, headbands, and arm bands. At the road to the back of the grounds, some people had climbed trees while others stood on the back of a ute parked on the side road, in an attempt to get the best view of the stage. To the right side of the stage, a particularly large group of people had gathered, because that spot offered the best vantage point from which to see the stage. Some young NLD volunteers who wore security badges formed a human chain around the crowd in an attempt to keep people off the road and allow the traffic to get through. The traffic crawled by slowly but patiently, car fumes choking the early air morning.

On stage sat the Lady, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, member of parliament and the NLD. With her sat U Tin Oo, founder of the NLD, and Min Ko Naing, 88 Generation leader. All three had been political prisoners for their pro-democracy activities during the post-1988 military period. While Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was clearly the favourite, the crowd listened with the same rapture and respect for all speakers. I wondered how many rallies this was now for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – from the weekly talks that she gave outside her gate in the early 1990s, to the talks she has given around the country when released from country arrest, particularly since 2010.

One of the most unusual aspects of the rally was the silence that prevailed when the speeches were being made. The atmosphere was surreal. There were thousands of people around me, and yet I could not see anyone talking or whispering to each other, nor was anyone on their phone.

Some media reports later estimated the event to have drawn a crowd as big as 20,000 people. Even though it was still early morning, the heat was oppressive and stifling, yet few people moved. All eyes were glued to the stage, as if their life depended on the words of the speakers. At times when one of the speakers made a particularly impassioned plea on the necessity of constitutional amendment, the crowd would cheer and applaud, but then it would inevitably fall respectfully silent again. It was perhaps the most orderly and controlled rally that I have ever been to, a far cry from the government’s claim that such a rally could necessitate a state of emergency.

Constitutional amendment rally in May 2014

I reflect more on this incident in a forthcoming chapter ‘Emergency Powers in Times of Transition: Between the Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Code in Myanmar’, in Andrew Harding (ed) (forthcoming) Constitutional Change and Law Reform in Myanmar. Hart Publishing