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Law professor testifies before Senate committee on Burma, urges constitutional change

Facing the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor David C. Williams urged the federal government not to relax sanctions on the Burmese military regime -- the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) -- until demonstrable progress can be shown in constitutional development and human rights.

David Williams

David Williams

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Williams, the John S. Hastings Professor of Law and the founder and executive director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy, was one of four witnesses to appear at the hearing in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 30.

American officials said earlier that week that they would begin communicating directly with the junta but will retain sanctions on the country until more progress has been made on democratic reform. Williams emphasized that the realities in Burma (also known as Myanmar) do not justify lifting sanctions now.

"The SPDC is committing mass atrocities against the ethnic minorities," Williams testified. "I know this because I advise many of the ethnic groups on constitutional reform, and I've spent a lot of time with them, witnessing conditions on the ground. Here is the second reality: Even if the 2010 elections are free and fair, which they won't be, they won't bring about civilian rule because the constitution does not provide for it. A partially civilian government, yes, but that government won't rule."

Williams said the government following planned elections next year "will be a military dictatorship just as much as now."

"The whole constitution is based on a 'wait and see' strategy: if the civilian government does what the (military) wants, then it will be allowed to rule. If not, then not. This constitution is not a good faith gesture toward democracy; it's a cynical attempt to buy off political pressure," he said.

Citing continued ethnic conflict, Williams said the ultimate ability of Burma to become truly democratic hinges on addressing those issues.

"Burma's problems began in ethnic conflict, and they will continue until the underlying issues are addressed," he said. "Some people seem to think that Burma's struggle is between one woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, who wants democracy, and one man, Than Shwe (head of the junta), who doesn't. But even if democracy comes to Burma, the troubles will not end until the needs and demands of the minorities have been answered."

The Center for Constitutional Democracy at the IU Maurer School of Law promotes constitutional democracy by bridging the worlds of ideas and affairs. The center maintains close relationships with democratic leaders in Burma, Liberia and Vietnam and contact with reform leaders throughout central Asia.

IU Maurer School of Law Dean Lauren Robel said she was pleased the committee asked Williams to testify.

"The Center for Constitutional Democracy has been deeply engaged with the Burmese ethnic minority population, and I'm glad its expertise is being recognized on the issues in Burma," Robel said.

The Center has established broad and deep connections within the Burmese democracy movement, and has earned the trust of its leaders through years of close cooperation with them on a variety of projects. For more information on the center and its mission, visit its Web site.