Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
August 3, 2015

McConnell Outlines Priorities for Myanmar’s Constitution

McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nv., met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (C), Chair of the National League for Democracy and Member of Parliament from Kawhmu Constituency in Burma. Kyi received a Congressional Gold Medal for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly weighed in on one of his long-standing priorities Thursday — the country of Myanmar.

The Kentucky Republican has long taken an interest in the Southeast Asian country, being among the leading voices against the repressive military junta that first took power in the late 1980s. Recent pro-democratic reforms led McConnell to announce in May that he wouldn’t push to continue U.S. sanctions against the Myanmar government.

McConnell’s a former chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the State Department’s budget.

On Thursday, McConnell inserted a detailed statement in the Congressional Record outlining four priorities for an overhaul of the country’s constitution, including establishing civilian control of military forces.

“Many of the stubborn problems Burma still needs to address stem from the continued outsized role of the military in Burmese political life. For example, Burma continues to maintain military ties with North Korea,” McConnell said in the statement. “The unfortunate result is that Burma’s pro-reform president Thein Sein cannot formally rein in the Tatmadaw since, under the Constitution, the president is not head of the armed forces. A separate military Commander in Chief leads the armed forces and he is independent of the president.”

The full text of the statement appears below:

In a little over two and a half years, the world has witnessed dramatic change in Burma; change that would have been thought unimaginable not long ago. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and now sits in parliament. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released from prison. A largely free and fair by-election was held in April 2012. Ceasefires have been signed between the central government and several ethnic minority groups.

Yet, despite these welcome reforms, much work remains to be done. At the heart of Burma’s existing problems is the need for constitutional reform. The current flawed Constitution is not up to the task of supporting the country’s democratic ambitions. Simply put, if Burma is to take the next big step toward economic and political reform and toward fully normalizing its relations with the United States, it needs to revise its Constitution.

And there has been some encouraging news on that front. Just last week the Burmese parliament announced it would establish a committee to examine amending the Constitution. This provides a great opportunity for the Burmese leadership to follow through on its commitment to full democratization.

As this parliamentary panel begins its efforts, I would highlight four areas of the Constitution that are, in my view, in particular need of reform.

The first area of reform is the need to bring the Burmese military, called the Tatmadaw [pronounced TAT-muh-daw], under civilian control. Civilian control of the military is a fundamental condition of a stable, modern democratic country. Many of the stubborn problems Burma still needs to address stem from the continued outsized role of the military in Burmese political life. For example, Burma continues to maintain military ties with North Korea. Indications are that elements within the Burmese military want to continue enjoying the financial benefits of continued relations with North Korea.

The unfortunate result is that Burma’s pro-reform president Thein Sein cannot formally rein in the Tatmadaw since, under the Constitution, the president is not head of the armed forces. A separate military Commander in Chief leads the armed forces and he is independent of the president.

Another example of the problems stemming from the lack of civilian control of the military is the tense state of relations between the armed forces and the Kachin ethnic group. The Kachin in northern Burma share a proud history with the United States stemming from our close cooperation during World War II. Ending the conflict in Kachin state—and all other ethnic conflicts for that matter—is essential to achieving lasting peace, reconciliation and security in Burma after 60 years of civil war.

In Europe recently, President Thein Sein predicted that a national ceasefire was right around the corner. And a peace process led by one of his close ministers has been ongoing. However, military clashes continue in northern Shan state as well as in Kachin state. The Tatmadaw has every right to protect itself, but, without transparency and civilian oversight, questions remain about the extent to which military operations have conformed with the President’s guidance and intentions.

Without ending its relationship with Pyongyang and without building peace with the Kachin and other ethnic nationalities, U.S.-Burmese relations will not become fully normalized. Without the military accepting civilian oversight and demonstrating a commitment to peace, our military relationship will likewise be limited. Such a result would be to the detriment of both countries.

Having U.S. diplomats continue to urge Burma to amend its Constitution to bring the military under civilian control is important. But there are other policy tools that I believe can help reform the Tatmadaw. I believe that beginning a modest military-to-military relationship would serve this purpose. Just to be clear. I am not advocating rushing into lethal training of the Burmese military or arms sales. What I am talking about is the U.S. armed forces engaging with the Tatmadaw on compliance with the law of armed conflict, and other issues related to international standards of military professionalism.

What better way is there to show the virtues of civilian control of the military than to have the most highly regarded armed forces in the world—the U.S. military—engaged with the Tatmadaw about respect for human rights, accountability and rule of law? I believe that a modest, targeted military-to-military relationship would work hand in glove with diplomatic efforts to convince the Burmese military that placing themselves under civilian control is good for the nation.

Beginning a military-to-military relationship is common sense. Since before independence, the Burmese military has been a significant political institution in the country. And no lasting reform in Burma can take place without convincing the Tatmadaw that such a step is a positive development for the country.

A second area of needed constitutional reform involves amending the Constitution to permit the Burmese people to choose freely whom they want to serve as their leader. This is a fundamental democratic principle. Current restrictions include a requirement that no one in the President’s immediate family can be a citizen born to parents who were not born in Burma. Just think about that. That’s a remarkably narrow requirement. Why does the Burmese government have so little faith in the ability of its citizens to freely and responsibly choose their own leaders?

These provisions, if left unamended, would cast a pall over the upcoming 2015 elections. And, those elections are viewed by many observers as the next high-profile step in Burma’s reform efforts. If the 2015 elections are viewed as illegitimate, it will lead many to conclude that reform efforts have stalled in Burma and the country’s stated commitment to democracy is hollow.

I think having the 2015 elections turn out to be flawed would cloud the reformist legacy of the current national leadership.

A third area of needed reform in this regard is judicial independence. Currently, the Burmese judiciary is not independent of the executive. As we ourselves have learned from experience in America, having judges who are not under the thumb of the other branches is not only a vital check on the other organs of government, but also a bulwark against violations of individual rights.

Finally, there need to be constitutional assurances for ethnic minorities. Burma faces no greater challenge than peacefully integrating its various ethnic groups. These groups have long harbored misstrust of the central government and the Tatmadaw. Building protections for ethnic minorities into the Constitution would, I suspect, go a long way toward making the ethnic groups more receptive to the new government. Such provisions would also be underscored by an independent judiciary to help enforce these protections.

Mr. President, as we know as Americans, amending a Constitution is not easy, nor should it be. But over the years, we in this country have amended our Constitution to make it more democratic and to provide greater protection of individual liberties.

Reforming the Burmese Constitution in areas such as the four I just raised is a necessary next step in Burma’s own journey toward democracy and peaceful, national reconciliation.

There is still time for Burma to act ahead of the 2015 election and correct these problems. I urge the country’s leadership to seize the moment, to take this vital step and to cement its reformist legacy.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.


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