Myanmar is due to hold general elections on November 8th, in an event that is widely seen as a test of the country’s transition to democracy. Much as when it gained independence in 1947, the country follows a hybrid form of governance which combines features of democratic and autocratic rule. This is reflected in Myanmar’s current constitutional framework, which does not readily lend itself to democratic elections.
Discussions about Indian constitutional history often focus on the influence of other constitutions on our own. In the case of Myanmar, the discussions in the Constituent Assembly of India impacted the form and content of the Constitution of Burma, 1948.
This can be attributed to one man who played a significant role in the constitution-building projects in both countries: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau.
Sir BN Rau. Image Credits: Indian Foreign Service on Twitter
In 1947, Rau was invited to draft Myanmar’s Constitution by General Aung San, the Deputy Chairman of the transitional government. Incidentally, San was the father of the current de facto head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi.
By the time Rau went to Myanmar, he was already heavily involved in India’s constitution-making process; he had recently published the ‘Outline of a New Constitution’ in 1946, which is said to have influenced the Cabinet Mission Plan for India’s constitutional future. He had also been appointed as the constitutional advisor to the Constituent Assembly of India. It appears that the Constitution of Burma, 1948 bears a strong resemblance to the Constitution of India, 1950.
Rau noted that the Preamble to the Burmese Constitution was ‘taken from the Objectives Resolution of the Indian Constituent Assembly’. Further, he stated that the ‘fundamental rights in the Burma Constitution follow closely, both in form and content, those recommended by the [Indian Constituent Assembly’s] Advisory Committee’.
Both Constitutions also included Directive Principles of State Policy, although Rau observed that the Burmese Constitution went even further than the DPSPs proposed for India. The Constitutions also incorporated the principle of bicameral parliamentary democracy and contained similar provisions on the office of the President and the passage of Money Bills.
After being colonized by the British in the 19th century, Myanmar was considered an Indian province for administrative purposes; it eventually became an independent state in January 1948. Given the shared histories of colonization and independence, it is understandable that Rau imagined that both India and Myanmar would benefit from similar systems of constitutional democracy.
Soon after the passage of the Constitution in 1948, General San was assassinated. This was followed by years of turmoil and unrest, resulting in the military junta taking control of the country in 1962. In 1974, a new Constitution was passed, repudiating the democratic values of the 1948 Constitution.
Commentators have recommended major amendments to Myanmar’s most recent Constitution, passed in 2008, to facilitate democracy in the country. Does this mean there will be a second chance for constitutional democracy for Myanmar?
Constitution Making Process: Draft Constitution by the Constitutional Advisor
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