Page last updated at 23:23 GMT, Monday, 19 May 2008 00:23 UK

Burma charter offers scant reform

Man voting in Burma's referendum
The government said 92% of people approved the constitution

The BBC's South East Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head, looks at what Burma's new constitution - overwhelmingly backed in a 10 May vote widely condemned as a sham - will mean for the future of the country's military rulers.

The announcement on Burmese state television came out of the blue.

In a country which had seen no political movement in 18 years, suddenly there were deadlines - a referendum in May on the new constitution and multi-party elections in 2010.

For the first time the ruling generals seemed to be in a hurry to get to their "discipline-flourishing democracy".

For years it looked like they would never get there.

Opposition boycott

The National Convention - the body charged with the task of drawing up a replacement to the constitution the military tore up in 1988 - first met way back at the beginning of 1993, when the generals were still reeling from their shock election defeat three years earlier by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).

This constitution gives the Burmese perhaps 5% to 10% freedom
Aung Naing Oo, political analyst

The NLD was part of the convention back then, but boycotted it in November 1995 because the military had swamped it with its own hand-picked delegates.

After that the Convention stopped meeting for 11 years.

When it reconvened again in October 2006, the delegates - more than a thousand of them - were confined to a specially-built complex outside Rangoon, where, a year later, they rammed through the military's vision of a semi-democracy in which the men-in-green would continue to hold all the cards.

But this was only stage one of what the military called a "seven-stage" road map.

It had taken more than 14 years.

Some viewed the whole process as a charade, a way for the military to put off ending its monopoly on power indefinitely.

They were wrong.

Exit strategy

Deeply flawed and unrepresentative though it clearly was, ruler Gen Than Shwe cared about this process.

Gen Than Shwe (March 2008)
Than Shwe's health is poor, but a move to oust him seems unlikely

He wanted legitimacy, through a constitution and elections, and soon.

"The new constitution is Than Shwe's exit strategy", says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst.

"He knows he has to provide a facade of civilian rule, but retain most of the power. This constitution gives the Burmese perhaps 5% to 10% freedom."

With a quarter of the seats in parliament going to the military, the new president guaranteed to be a military man, and the armed forces kept beyond civilian supervision, the charter should offer sufficient protection for Than Shwe, and his family and cronies, who have become immensely rich.

But the referendum looked at first like a gamble.

Would the long-suffering Burmese people use the vote to show their disgust over military misrule?

Was the government risking a repeat of the humiliation it experienced in 1990?

Apparently not.

Than Shwe does not like taking risks. So he made sure there was no chance of losing.

Orchestrated vote

Government employees and military personnel were put under huge pressure to cast their votes early - and given little choice about which way to vote.

Monks demonstrating in Burma (Sept 2007)
Buddhist monks protested against the government last year

Some have told the BBC their bosses voted on their behalf.

No independent monitors were allowed.

The few people who dared to campaign for a rejection of the constitution were arrested.

Only the final vote tally was announced, in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, so it was impossible to cross-check against local tallies.

The result - more than 92%, from a turnout of 99% - was widely condemned as simply not credible.

But there are Burmese who argue that this is at least a way forward, that even a military-dominated "democracy" may offer more space for dissenting views than the undiluted direct military rule they live under now.

With the economy in tatters even before Cyclone Nargis wiped out Burma's rice-bowl in the Irrawaddy Delta, a dialogue on repairing the damage done by half a century of military incompetence is arguably more urgent than outright political reform.

The dynamics among the secretive cabal of generals who run Burma are hard to divine, but it is believed there are tensions among them, and unhappiness over the way Than Shwe has handled both the cyclone disaster and last year's anti-government protests led by Buddhists monks.

An overt move against Than Shwe seems unlikely.

Loyalty to their commanding officers is instilled in Burmese soldiers to an unusual degree, and there is no recent history of mutinies.

But Than Shwe's health is poor. Should he die or be incapacitated it is just possible his successor - likely to be number three in the ruling council, Gen Thura Shwe Mann - may be more receptive to political reform.

But the military will only move very cautiously.

The continued breakdown of Burma's economy and society could well outpace them.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific