Myat Myat Mon discusses the importance of constitutional conversation and how it can foster more informed public debate in Myanmar.
Numerous articles featured in both news and academic sources demand constitutional change in Myanmar, but few focus on the importance of constitutional conversations among people of all levels. In contrast, this piece underlines the importance of constitutional conversation in Myanmar, proposing that it can enhance the development of an informed public.
Constitutional conversations are convergence points where people can discuss the Constitution in general, the important role it plays, the life cycle of a Constitution and any other aspect related to Constitutions. Myanmar has adopted three official Constitutions – the 1947 Constitution, the 1974 Constitution and the 2008 Constitution. Constitutional negotiations have played a key role in political settlement in Myanmar, such as the Panglong Agreement, which paved the way to the 1947 Constitution. Constitutions can also be mechanisms for legitimizing undemocratic regimes. The 1974 Constitution served the socialist regime and evidently, the 2008 Constitution serves the interests of military. On top of that, ongoing peace negotiations are also tethered to constitutional questions, placing constitutional conversations at the front and centre of negotiation tables.
Constitutional conversation, in this piece, means taking part more in informal or formal discussions on Constitutions and understanding the fundamentals of Constitutions, what Constitutions serve for, and the importance of Constitutions. Reading the Constitution itself and disseminating facts and analysis is also a form of constitutional conversation. Studies make clear that the general public in Myanmar is found to lack constitutional knowledge. A nationwide survey of 3,565 respondents undertaken by MyJustice shows that while 90% of respondents know there is a Constitution, 84% cannot name any constitutional rights. In fact, the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar has a separate chapter (Chapter 8) on citizens’ rights and responsibilities. Whether these rights are democratic or not is a different case. Nevertheless, these statistics explicitly show that most people in Myanmar do not know the details of, or have not read the content of the Constitution.
Surprisingly, poor public awareness about constitutional rights is not confined to Myanmar. A survey done by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Centre in 2017 finds that more than a third out of 1,013 adults interviewed could not name any of rights granted under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This shows that not knowing constitutional rights, in other words, not knowing about the Constitution, is not just the case in a nascent democratic state like Myanmar. At the same time, it is even more important to have more civic knowledge on Constitutions in young democracies to familiarize the public with the culture of democratic systems and their functions.
Constitutional conversation can bring about a stronger civic knowledge of the Constitution, especially about its structures and functions of government. Constitutional conversations could include: formal or informal discussions on the content of the constitution, the basic structure of the State, the political actors mentioned in the Constitution, and their roles and responsibilities. Knowing the basic facts about the Constitution can help the public check government institutions and elected officials, holding them accountable to the voters.
Discussing constitutional matters more in Myanmar can also lead to more informed debates over political issues in Myanmar. The current political debates in Myanmar manifest on social media platforms, which tend to be more nationalistic in nature. Understanding constitutionally guaranteed rights and the structures and functions of government will help, at least, to frame the flow of debates and discussions from a constitutional perspective and also let the public realize deeper constitutional problems.
Some constitutional conversations are ongoing in Myanmar, but not to such an extent that they effectively get the public engaged. Since May 2018 was the 10 year anniversary of military-drafted 2008 Constitution, most Myanmar media outlets reported on the Constitution in April and May of this year. With this, then, the Constitution was in the public eye more than ever before. A research report on amending Schedule Two of the 2008 Constitution was just released in early May. It is a good sign that media and research reports increasingly present information about the Constitution and the history of it in Myanmar to help keep the public informed on constitutional matters.
However, more forms of constitutional conversations should be fostered by different actors and stakeholders to get the public engaged in informed debate and discussion. Media outlets could feature the basics of general theories on Constitutions, the fundamentals of Constitutions, the structures and functions of the 2008 Myanmar Constitution as well as the constitutional history of Myanmar, such as the forming of the 1947 Constitution and the 1974 Constitution. Media outlets could also publish more analysis and opinion pieces on constitutional issues to keep the public informed of the deep-rooted problems. Civil society organizations and non-profit organizations could organize constitution trainings, roundtables and seminars to educate the general public, the political and civil society elites more on constitutional problems in Myanmar so as to engage the public in constitutional discussions. On top of that, individuals could also write on the basics of the Constitution in general and analyse previous Myanmar Constitutions to the end of widespread distribution on social media platforms to get more people involved in constitutional discussions.
Fareed Zakaria noted in his piece ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,’ that constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism. It is very important for the public to understand the basics of Constitutions and their functions in general as well as some knowledge on Myanmar’s past and present Constitutions. Constitutional conversations can be one of the forces that enable constitutional liberalism and democracy to thrive in a transitional state like Myanmar.
Myat Myat Mon is currently working in the field of constitution building, federalism and democratic governance. She received a Bachelor’s in Social Studies from the Liberal Arts Program of Myanmar Institute of Theology. She thanks all who have provided comments on the first draft of this piece and Tea Circle editorial team.