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Debbie O'Leary
IU School of Law--Bloomington

Achieving constitutional democracy in Burma

Indiana legal experts available to comment on situation in Burma

Broadcast media: To interview law professor and Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies director David C. Williams on-camera via the IU Video-Link to Bloomington, please contact Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or

David Williams

David Williams

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Oct. 8, 2007

Recent news about the military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma (Myanmar) scratches the surface of the complex problems facing the Southeast Asian country, according to officials with the Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies at the Indiana University School of Law - Bloomington.

IU Law faculty members and research associates at the center have advised Burmese pro-democracy forces for six years, working both in the U.S. and Burma. They say that key points about the conflict include:

  • Ethnic divisions are a crucial factor, with the military regime fighting an ongoing civil war against minority resistance forces that are seeking greater autonomy in border regions.
  • Federal and state constitutions that create power sharing for ethnic minorities are essential if there is to be a peaceful, democratic Burma.
  • While the violent crackdown against Buddhist monks and other protesters in the capital of Rangoon (Yangon) has made the news, the military has long exercised continuous violence against ethnic minorities in rural areas.
  • China, as Burma's major trading partner, could pressure the military regime to be less harsh and violent in its crackdown against dissent, but the regime seems generally unmoved by international censure.

Ethnic divisions

"The civil war really started because of ethnic divisions," said David C. Williams, the founder and director of the CCDPS and the John S. Hastings Professor of Law at IU. "It's not going to end unless you address them." May Oo, research fellow at the center and an IU doctoral student, fled Burma as a high school student after the military crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. "The minorities don't want to be put into this 'melting pot' called Burma," she said. "Putting them into a melting pot, without proper arrangements, threatens their existence as a people. They each have their own cultures, their own traditions."


"Everybody's talking about democracy vs. the military. They need to be talking about a constitutional settlement," Williams said. "The biggest piece of this is educating a generation of leaders who will have to take over and need to know what constitutional democracy looks like. They have never seen it." Williams has crossed the border into Burma to work on constitution-building with anti-military forces -- including, this past summer, with the 5th Brigade of the Karen National Liberation Army. He said there is support for the constitutional process from all major ethnic and democratic opposition groups, including the National League for Democracy led by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi.

Susan Williams

Susan Williams

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In central Burma, there is continuous repression and denial of human rights, but the military has generally used large-scale, public force against civilians only in response to demonstrations, such as in 1988 and this fall, said Susan Williams, associate director of the center and the Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law at IU. "In the ethnic areas, there is death all the time," she said. "We're not talking about the secret police showing up at your door in the middle of the night. We're talking about tanks rolling over villages."

She said the military burns crops and destroys rice-paddy dams to deprive villages of food and to undermine support for resistance groups. The Burma regime also poses risks for other countries, she said. It is a major exporter of illegal drugs (No. 2 for opium, according to the State Department); human trafficking from and through Burma is likely causing the spread of HIV; and more than 150,000 refugees are living in camps across the border in Thailand.

To speak to Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies sources, please contact Debbie O'Leary at the IU School of Law—Bloomington, 812-855-2426 or