Indiana University Bloomington

Primary Navigation

Professors Susan Williams and David Williams with colleagues in Burma

Promoting constitutional democracy around the world

“We didn't sit down and look at a map or read a newspaper and say ‘Oh, that’s a good place.’ We were invited by people inside the democracy movements in those countries. They chose us.”

Susan Williams
Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law

Pictured above: Professor David Williams, Professor Susan Williams, and JD affiliate Tara Paul with Naw Zipporah Sein, Secretary General of the Karen National Union and former coordinator and executive secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization. She has been called a “heroine” by PoliticalHeroes.org

Read more feature stories »

Indiana Law’s Center for Constitutional Democracy helps people who have been hurting each other, oppressing each other, and killing each other, to build legal institutions that will allow them to live together in peace, justice, and democracy. It is one of the only centers in the world to do active constitutional design consulting.

The 2010 elections in Burma and the release of democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after 20 years of house arrest called on Professor David Williams’s expertise. A principal Burma advisor to the U.S. Department of State, he visits the country regularly to meet with resistance leaders and has brought them to Washington to meet with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the first-ever meeting of its kind.

But the Williamses didn’t go looking for a connection with Burma, Liberia, or the other countries that are benefiting from their expertise — in a way, these democracy-deprived countries found them.

“We didn’t sit down and look at a map or read a newspaper and say ‘Oh, that’s a good place,’” said Susan Williams, the Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law who directs Indiana University’s Center for Constitutional Democracy with her husband, David, the center’s executive director and the John S. Hastings Professor of Law. “We were invited by people inside the democracy movements in those countries,” she says.

Williams has long been critical of the junta’s approach to the elections. In 2009, he told the Senate East Asia Subcommittee that the elections would not be free and fair, adding that the constitution was one of the worst he had ever seen. “This constitution is not a good faith gesture toward democracy; it’s a cynical attempt to buy off international pressure,” he testified.

The Burmese government is currently negotiating ceasefires with at least 10 ethnic minority groups. The government has also agreed in principle to follow the ceasefires with political talks about future constitutional reform. Williams is advising the ethnic minority groups on the ceasefire process and also on the process for entering into political talks about constitutional amendments.

“Agreement on the principles for future constitutional reform can serve as a potent unifying impulse within the movement as it works for change,” Williams says. “Groups with differing agendas will be better able to trust and cooperate with each other in the knowledge that they share the same basic vision for Burma. And ex ante agreement on a constitutional framework will make it far more likely that Burma will not relapse into civil war and/or military domination.”

Opportunities for Students

The Law School offers a degree for LLM or PhD students interested in global constitutional reforms. The degree provides intense exposure to constitutional studies for students who are likely international reformers, want to work in non-governmental organizations, or are members of international organizations that are involved in reconstruction projects in other countries. The Center has also developed an interdisciplinary PhD program in Law and Democracy designed to prepare students to work on constitutional reform in a broad range of contexts. Click here to learn more about these degrees.