Thursday, 09 July 2020

Jonathan Head


Burma has been ruled by the military for 44 years, but that could be about to change if the lofty goals set by the country's National Convention are met.


Delegates to the convention, which has been meeting for most of this month, said they expected it to finish its work on a new constitution by next year - thereby completing the first stage of the military's so-called "seven stage path to democracy".


This year foreign journalists were given rare access to the opening stages of the meeting.


To get to the Nyaung Hna Pin camp, where the convention is taking place, we drove through flat, flooded fields, a landscape akin to a tropical Holland.


Armed soldiers guarded the entrance, and gave our bus a cursory check for possible bombs.


This might be where Burma's political future is being mapped out, but ordinary Burmese have not been invited.


Only the 1,086 delegates, and their military guards, get to see the process first hand. The delegates are confined to the camp for weeks at a time, with only a karaoke bar and a small outdoor cinema for entertainment.


Unusual 'democracy'


The delegates arrived at the opening session of the convention in full ethnic finery - a requirement to give the impression that the meeting represents all of Burma's people.


Inside the hall, I saw crudely printed signs for other groups, labelled Peasants, Workers, Intellectuals and Intelligentsia.


But almost every one of the delegates has been hand-picked by the military, and none felt comfortable talking to foreign journalists.


"It might not produce a democracy that you are used to," Professor Tun Aung Chain told me. "It could be quite different, according to the present situation in the country".


Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, the information minister, was less equivocal.


"There are 30 countries that still have unelected members of parliament," he said, "Even in Britain, your upper house has unelected members".


I pointed out that in Britain, these were not serving officers in an army that has run the country for nearly half a century, but he brushed that point aside.


The military is running the National Convention, and intends to keep a deciding role over any future government.


One clause in the new constitution which is not negotiable is that the president must have had at least 15 years of military service.


A thorn in the side of the military's plans is the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which won more than 80% of the seats in the last election 16 years ago.


It has boycotted the National Convention since 1995, saying it does not want to take part in a process so dominated by the armed forces.


In the opening speech at the meeting - against a monumental backdrop reminiscent of party congresses from the old Soviet Union - the NLD got no mention from General Thein Sein, the fourth-ranking officer in Burma who is running the convention.


He merely referred to "destructive elements" whom, he claimed, were using terrorist methods to undermine the convention.


His speech was peppered with claims of dramatic improvements that the country has supposedly enjoyed under military rule.


Dialogue with the NLD is ruled out by the generals. They accuse the party of being stubborn, confrontational and under the influence of "foreign powers".


'Accelerating impoverishment'


There is a very different reality away from the remote world of the convention.


Rangoon is a dilapidated city, its once magnificent colonial buildings crumbling, and even more recent concrete towers showing signs of neglect.


The city feels several decades behind those in neighbouring countries. If there has been any economic progress over the past decade, it is impossible to see.


"The situation is one of accelerating impoverishment for a significant proportion of the population," I was told by Charles Petrie, who heads the UN assistance operations in Burma.


The NLD headquarters in Rangoon seems afflicted by the same decay that you see elsewhere in the city.


The building is dark and quiet. Going there requires some nerve, even as a journalist on an officially-approved visa, as there are military spooks watching and taking note of everyone going in and out.


How much more intimidating it must be for Burmese citizens to go there.


But there are always groups of people gathered at the office, either for political discussions or other classes, surrounded by piled up chairs, bundles of fading documents, and walls covered in portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi - who is just a stone's throw away, kept in isolation in her house by the military.


I have to remind myself that people have been jailed, tortured and killed just for supporting the NLD.


"We are still functioning," said NLD spokesman Henthe Myint. "You can see by the military's anxiety to discredit us that we are still a political force in this country."


It is all too obvious that the years of harassment have ground the NLD down, limiting it to just a token presence in most of the country.

But that shabby office in Rangoon still felt more real than the stage-managed performance we were shown at the National Convention.


The military is confident it will have a new constitution within a year - but it will be a document over which the Burmese people will have no say.


Jonathan Head is the BBC South East Asia correspondent