THIS week, I’ve spent most of my time at the back of a conference room in a hotel in Mon State, Myanmar, under the shadow of “the old Moulmein pagoda” immortalised in Kipling’s Road to Mandalay.

Twenty-eight students are taking part in a Constitutional Academy, a residential training course run by an intergovernmental pro-democracy organisation. It is funded by the governments of Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg and Finland – some small, rich, European democracies doing their bit to support

Myanmar’s transition to constitutional democracy after decades of military rule.

Myanmar (or Burma as it was then known) was once part of the British Empire, part of the chain of countries extending around the Bay of Bengal and across the Andaman sea from Calcutta down to Singapore and on to Australasia and the South Pacific colonies.

Administered separately from British India, Burma was known colloquially as “the Scottish colony”, such was the presence of Scottish merchants in its main port city Rangoon. The “paddles chunking from Rangoon to Mandalay” mentioned in Kipling’s poem were most likely owned by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, headquartered in Glasgow.

In the Second World War the country was twice devastated, first by the Japanese invasion and second by its reconquest by British and allied forces in the Burma

Campaign. The British plan for post-war Burma had been for a staged transition to “dominion status” after a 10-year post-war reconstruction programme.

Aung San, the premier of Burma and leader of its governing party, the Anti-Fascist People’s Liberation League, was not for waiting.

Much of the population was still under arms, and willing if

necessary, to take immediate independence by force. The British authorities, their hands forced by the rapidly changing circumstances, agreed to independence by the end of 1947.

In the February of that year, Aung San summoned the representatives of the Shan States and the Chin and Kachin Hill peoples to a conference in Panglong, in southern Shan State. There they agreed to unite as one country in order to achieve independence together, on the condition that the internal autonomy of the Shan, Chin and Kachin would be recognised.

Burma therefore became independent as a united state, incorporating within its sprawling boundaries both a Burmese majority and a number of culturally distinct ethnic groups – not just the Shan, Chin and Kachin, but also the Karen, Mon, Wa, Pa’O and others.

The 1947 Constitution of Burma was a fine example of a typical post-war, Westminster-model, end-of-Empire constitution. Much about it was admirable. It failed, however, to give satisfactory effect to the Panglong principles – hindered in no small measure by the vagueness of those principles. In any case, the terms offered to the ethnic groups failed to meet their aspirations, and a sustainable federal system was not achieved.

Tensions between the Burmese central government and the ethnic states spilled over into an active movement for succession, which was put down by a military coup in 1962 – after just 15 years of democracy. Despite rebranding and a genuine but limited liberalisation exercise, that military remained in power throughout the following six decades.

Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Su Kyi (the daughter of the Aung San, pictured) was under house arrest. Civil war between the Burmese military and armed ethnic groups fighting for their autonomy, or even secession, raged on. The country was cut off from the world. Even the law and political science faculties were closed down, after student protests, to stop the spread of radicalism.

The recent changes in Myanmar are remarkable. Aung San Suu Kyi, no longer a dissident leader under house arrest, became the informal leader of the government in 2015, when her National League for Democracy won the country’s first free and fair general elections for generations.

All of which takes us back to this hotel conference room. There are seminars on constitutional reform. Discussions on democracy. Lectures on electoral systems. Simulation exercises where participants sit together and try to negotiate a constitutional settlement. The participants are keen and hungry for knowledge. After years of isolation, they want to learn from the world’s experiences of democracy.

Myanmar is still not fully democratic: the military continue to appoint one-quarter of the members of both Houses of Parliament. Nobody knows when the opening for further constitutional change will come. But people want to be ready. They want to engage. They want to understand so that when the time comes, they will not be hoodwinked or misled.

If Myanmar can do this, so can Scotland. It’s time for Constitutional Academies to be rolled out from Wigtown to Wick, so that people from all walks of life who are active and influential in their communities can come together and learn what it takes to make a democratic constitution – so that when the time comes, we are ready.

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