Why bullets may not work in Myanmar

The military’s mass killing of protesters focuses democracy advocates to search for legitimacy by forging consensus on a new constitution.

Protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, hold posters last month reading "Amend the 2008 constitution" in support of constitutional reform.

To show that it alone holds sovereign power in Myanmar, the military has killed nearly 500 protesters since a coup two months ago. Many of the elected civilian politicians, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, are either in jail or in hiding. While the rain of bullets by soldiers has brought global condemnation, it also suggests the military brass knows its claim of authority is hollow. One reason: The legitimacy to rule in Myanmar could be rising elsewhere.

In recent days, members of the pro-democracy opposition have teamed up with some of Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups to write a new draft constitution, far from the eyes of military spies. This grassroots movement wants to replace the military-drafted 2008 constitution. While that document allowed some civilian rule since 2011, it kept much of the power in the army’s hands – including the ability to amend the document. When the military’s own party lost an election in November to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, it decided that even that limited charter had to go.

The Feb. 1 coup exposed the military’s false logic. To most people in Myanmar, power derives from the consent of the governed. That means the constitution itself must arise from individuals who want to protect their unalienable rights. Those rights already exist and can be neither created nor lost. The military believes it can simply kill away that idea.

Democracy advocates in Myanmar have learned from other countries that constitutions must be a bottom-up collective enterprise. In Belarus, for example, months of protests following a bogus election last August have led to a popular movement to rewrite the constitution as one way to oust the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. In Chile, years of protests over economic inequality led to a referendum last year to initiate a civilian-led process of writing a new political framework and social compact. In Haiti, thousands of people took to the streets Sunday to defend their country’s constitution and reject an attempt by President Jovenel Moïse to amend it for his own purposes.

Many countries are trying to define sovereign power. They rely on unchanging, guiding principles such as the equality of all persons. The 17th-century philosopher John Locke said humanity must live by a “law of nature” based on each person’s ability to reason. That law, he added, originated by “one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker.”

The real news in Myanmar is not the rising death toll but the rise of individuals reaffirming their ability to self-govern by writing a new social compact. Constitutions that liberate and endure are not just words. They are the result of people discovering the source of true sovereignty.

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