Constitutional Amendment: What’s the best way forward?

By The Irrawaddy 3 August 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! The Constitution of Myanmar is said to be the most rigid in the world. Myanmar’s politics are locked in a constitutional crisis. The NLD [National League for Democracy] began to take steps to amend the Constitution some months ago. There was strong resistance from military lawmakers and the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP]. We will discuss how the NLD can overcome the constitutional crisis, what measures it can take, and what we can expect at best and at worst. I will discuss this with U Aung Kyi Nyunt, the NLD Central Executive Committee member who submitted the proposal to form the Charter Amendment Committee. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

It can be said that our country is faced with a constitutional crisis. It can be said that Myanmar’s Constitution is one of the most rigid in the world. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi once said so. There has been a lot of resistance since you submitted the proposal to form the Charter Amendment Committee months ago. Military lawmakers raised objections to your proposal. The USDP, which is said to be the military’s proxy, raised objections. Do you see it as a constitutional crisis? It seems that people have high hopes. How can it be overcome?

Aung Kyi Nyunt: Yes, it is a constitutional crisis. But I don’t think it erupted after we made efforts to amend the Constitution. It has existed right from the outset. The crisis erupted when the Constitution [was drafted to] grant 25 percent of seats to military appointees and require the approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers to amend the Constitution. This is the first barrier. The second barrier is that amendments need to be approved by over 50 percent of eligible voters in a referendum.

KZM: The NLD proposed over 110 amendments, and the main goal I see is to reduce the Tatmadaw’s role in politics over time. It proposed reducing the military block to 15 percent in the 2020 election, and by a further 5 percentage points at each general election. It appears that the Tatmadaw is not yet ready for that. How can they be convinced?

AKN: It is quite difficult to address their concerns. According to the NLD’s proposal, it will take 15 years [to remove the military from Parliament]. By that time, perhaps both of us [the NLD and the Tatmadaw] will have fallen from power.

KZM: [The timeline] is through 2036.

AKN: Yes, the process will not finish until 2036. Our plan offers a certain degree of flexibility. The rigidity of the Constitution is partly due to numbers. The problem is the Tatmadaw takes 25 percent of seats, and amendments to the Constitution need the approval of more than 75 percent. If the Constitution is not amended when it is necessary, the political process will not be smooth. Myanmar has experienced negative consequences that otherwise could have been averted through constitutional amendment. The 1947 constitution was abolished by a military coup. The 1974 constitution came to an end after a popular uprising [in 1988]. Our approach aims to minimize the negative impacts on the country by ensuring laws are amended systematically in line with the law.

KZM: Given the current situation, what would be the worst-case scenario, because there were coups in 1962 and 1988? Could the constitutional crisis worsen to that extent?

AKN: We are trying now because we don’t want the constitutional crisis to escalate to that extent. This crisis [a coup] will not happen if there is cooperation with consciousness and alertness. But if there is no such cooperation, it is quite difficult to predict the worst possible thing that could happen.

KZM: [The NLD] proposed the formation of the committee that proposed the amendments, and [the NLD] is pushing to prepare a bill on them. Many people haven shown support for it. But there are also opponents. But most of the analysts suggest, and I also believe, that the leaders will be the most important factor in settling this issue. There must be a consensus between the leaders. Regarding the constitutional crisis in Myanmar, there is a need for consensus between State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on one side and [military commander-in-chief] Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on the other side. All believe that the Constitution can be changed to a certain extent only when the two reach a consensus. How can these two be reconciled?

AKN: Regarding what can be done for that, there are certain things we can’t do. But by working to amend the Constitution, we have created an opportunity. Everyone knows in whose hands the political decision-making power lies. If we submitted a constitutional amendment bill by ourselves, there would have been an intense debate and resistance in Parliament [compared to building a broad consensus between political parties through the charter amendment committee, which would save a lot of hassles in the debate]. And it would be quite difficult for leaders to intervene when things get worse. Now in the second stage [of the constitutional amendment process] it is becoming clear which parties want to change the Constitution and how desirous they are of it. Those proposals [show] what they wish to change, and they may not be practical or possible. But then, as a joint [charter amendment] committee was formed to propose amendments instead of directly debating the issue in Parliament, the leaders can see the positions of individual parties. So they can determine what to change and what not to change. This is in fact an opportunity. If this opportunity is grasped, it will create circumstances [to help leaders reconcile]. We don’t know how to reconcile, but we have created this to provide an opportunity to reconcile. This is a chance. One of the main purposes [of forming the charter amendment committee] is that it will allow inclusiveness, and ethnic lawmakers will be able to participate [in the amendment process]. Secondly, it will present an opportunity to change the fate of the country. Thirdly, it is about history. Rather than the Constitution being amended by a single party, if it is amended under the aegis of the Union Parliament, it will be a proud moment in the country’s history. We have said that we initiated the constitutional amendment process with these three objectives.

KZM: But, what if the other side does not take that opportunity?

AKN: Then, what ought to be achieved will not be achieved.

KZM: The NLD took office in 2016. It has not been able to satisfy public expectations on many issues; perhaps people have high expectations. There are weaknesses in administration. There might be weakness in the Parliament. And regarding the political landscape, there is the Rohingya issue in Rakhine State and ongoing clashes with the AA [Arakan Army]. What weaknesses of the NLD have you found, if you were to make a self-criticism?

AKN: Taking a look at history, it is plain to see that the NLD and its government were born out of a desire to work for the good of the country without ego and self-interest. In other words, it is a tree of a great seed. As the tree grows fruit, some of the fruit may be worm-eaten. But then, we can’t cut down the tree for that. We should only remove the worm-eaten fruit and think about how to prevent them from being eaten by worms in the future. Yes, it is true that there has been criticism of the NLD administration. Many tend to blame us for not having reached the goal, but they [don’t take into consideration] the fact that we are walking toward that goal. In fact, the NLD is walking swiftly, though we have not yet reached it. I don’t understand why there is only blame for not having reached the goal, without recognizing the strides we are taking. And another thing is—I am not making an excuse; I’m just talking about the reality—you can see that in Myanmar politics, only the driver has changed, but the bus is the same old bus. The mechanism is the same old one. We have to focus not only on driving swiftly, but from time to time we have to repair the vehicle.

KZM: And there are also potholes along the road.

AKN: Yes, there are. Only the driver has changed. And the road and the bus are not yet ready for the driver to drive straight. As we drive, we have to repair the bus and the road from time to time. People need to understand this situation.

KZM: There have been many political twists and turns. While we expect good things, we also have to prepare for bad things. As the NLD is trying to amend the Constitution, I believe it is expecting good things but also preparing for the bad things at the same time. One of the primary concerns of the people is that things will develop in a way that allows the military to stage a coup. What do you think are the best-case and the worst-case scenarios regarding constitutional amendment?

AKN: Personally, I focus more on the best, or the hope to work for betterment. I don’t focus on the worst possible things, and I won’t reveal them. Because saying the worst possible things can include accusations. If one side feels like they are being accused of something they have not done, that won’t do us any good walking toward the goal. We don’t want to quarrel. Our position is moderate, but we are not weak. We have never had a submissive attitude. If we have to struggle more in politics, we are always ready for that. We are not weak, but we want to communicate and hold talks [with the Myanmar military] in a moderate way. We take this position not for our interest or their interest, but for the interest of the entire Union.

KZM: Thank you for your contribution.