Military Not Pulling Its Punches on Charter Change

By The Irrawaddy 2 March 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! The National League for Democracy (NLD)’s relations with the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have been tense since the NLD took steps to amend the Constitution. There has been a lot of criticism on social media about the statements by the USDP and the Tatmadaw. We will discuss what the Tatmadaw can do to win the love and support of the people regarding constitutional amendment. Political analyst U Maung Maung Soe and political journalist Ko Thiha Thway join me to discuss the issue. I’m [The Irrawaddy English editor-in-chief] Kyaw Zwa Moe.

The Tatmadaw held a press conference on Saturday. They said they agree [in principle] with amending the Constitution, but the NLD had not complied with procedures and the law. Military-appointed lawmakers and officials of the Tatmadaw True News Information Team also talked a lot. And there was public criticism in response. For example, [military-appointed lawmaker] Brigadier-General Maung Maung told reporters, “The country will face instability if any one political party amends the Constitution with only its [own] goals in mind. Because our country is in a strategic position, it could become a battleground if the wrong position is taken. It is necessary to be aware of this.” Ko Maung Maung Soe, do the military leaders need to respond that strongly? Are their concerns reasonable?

Maung Maung Soe: The problem stems from a failure to negotiate in the name of national reconciliation. The Tatmadaw needs to think about what impacts their responses will have. They need to think about whether people accept and support their responses in Parliament, and their responses at press conference, and if their responses are appropriate considering the reality facing the country. Some view their response as too aggressive. The Tatmadaw has been deeply involved in politics for 57 years, since 1962. In fact, it has been involved since 1948, because civil war broke out [in that year] and has continued since. And the existing Constitution gives the Tatmadaw a major role to play. Under such circumstances, the Tatmadaw doesn’t need to respond so aggressively, I think. If it responds with restraint—by saying that it agrees with constitutional change in principle but wants it to take place in line with procedures—the view of the people, as well as those of foreign countries and investors, of the Tatmadaw might be different.

KZM: Ko Thiha, you attended the Tatmadaw’s press conference. The Tatmadaw True News Information Team’s secretary, Major-General Tun Tun Nyi, said the NLD bent the rules after taking office in 2015. He said it stretched the rules by submitting the State Counselor Law. People are not happy with the Tatmadaw’s response. What is your view?

Thiha Thway: When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi first entered Parliament, she had to take an oath that she would safeguard the Constitution. She refused to take that oath, which was the beginning of the problems regarding the NLD and the Constitution. As with the State Counselor Law, the NLD caught [the Tatmadaw] off guard when it submitted the [constitutional amendment] proposal. The Tatmadaw raised objections. It said time should be made for discussion of such a contentious issue. The Tatmadaw says such matters should not be put to a vote. The NLD has a majority in Parliament. The Tatmadaw thinks the NLD has wielded its majority too aggressively, and has responded. This has resulted in tensions between the two sides.

KZM: The NLD has not said which provisions it will seek to amend. But judging from the 168 proposed amendments to the Constitution the NLD published in 2014, I can conclude that the party will not push the Tatmadaw to retreat from politics for the time being; for example [the provision guaranteeing] that 25 percent of lawmakers will be military representatives appointed to Parliament by the commander-in-chief of defense services. Nor do I think the NLD will push to restrict the power of the commander-in-chief. Given the current situation, the NLD is not likely to do so, as it is working for national reconciliation. U Maung Maung Soe, do you think the Tatmadaw needs to be worried? In my opinion, the NLD will continue working together with the Tatmadaw for the next 15, 20 years.

MMS: There is one thing that the Tatmadaw and the military-backed USDP are worried about. Constitutional amendment is supported by the majority of the people. Frankly speaking, it is the best tool to solicit votes in the 2020 election. The majority of the people will not cast votes for anyone who is against amending the Constitution. The majority of the people want to have it amended. Today, nobody thinks that the Constitution doesn’t need to be changed. Everyone says it needs to be changed, though there has not been any argument yet about which provisions should be changed. Rather than raising strong objections at this moment, it would be better to have a debate after the provisions to be amended are sorted out.

KZM: It is the task of the committee [to draft amendments to the Constitution].

MMS: Yes, it is. However small their representation on the committee, the Tatmadaw, USDP, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, Arakan National Party and other parties have the right to debate anyway. Again, nothing the committee agrees is final. Its proposed amendments will be submitted to Parliament and will be finalized only after being approved by Parliament. Though the NLD is in the majority at present, it holds just over 60 percent [of seats]. It is difficult to get those amendments approved as this requires more than 70 percent of votes, according to Section 436 [of the charter]. Whether they will be approved will depend on negotiations. Only when the two sides agree can a particular provision be amended in Parliament. There is no need to worry too much. They can respond calmly.

KZM: Given the current political landscape, how far will the NLD go to amend the Constitution?

TT: When the committee starts discussions, we will see which provisions will be hard to amend. Besides the discussion inside the committee, there should be talks between the leaders of the two sides outside the committee. If the Army chief and NLD leader reach an agreement, the committee will also be able to arrive at an agreement. As the committee will hold detailed discussions on particular provisions, the different views on those provisions will become clearer. And if the leaders of the two sides are willing to negotiate based on those views, I hope the Constitution can be changed to a certain extent. As you’ve said, the NLD can’t amend the Constitution as it wishes. And the NLD knows that it can’t.

KZM: Ko Maung Maung Soe, speaking of civilian-military relations, the Tatmadaw shouldn’t focus just on the relations between military and civilian leaders, but also on what they call soldier-state relations and soldier-society relations; in other words the relations between them and the people. Only then will it become more respectable, right?

MMS: When we talk about civilian-military relations, generally we focus on what the civilian side should do to improve its relations with the military. In my view, the military should think about how to improve its relations with the civilian side. Both Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have shown that they understand that the Constitution can’t be amended right away. At an exclusive meeting on Oct. 15, 2018, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that ethnicities might have their own dreams about what should constitute a federal Union, but at the same time, there is a need to acknowledge the reality of the 2008 Constitution, which [she said] should be amended step by step. This is the stance of the NLD. Lawmakers of the Tatmadaw, USDP, NLD and all the other parties, if all of them agree that the Constitution should be amended, the first thing they should do is to think about what particular provisions should be amended as a priority. The peace and ethnic issues are the most pressing issues now. We should think about whether or not to amend provisions related to ethnic issues, self-determination and equality first. If they proceed based on those basic points, it will be easier to solve the problem.

KZM: I think many points can be amended then. Speaking of ethnic issues, military officers said at [Saturday’s conference] that the Tatmadaw would withdraw from politics only when ethnic armed organizations no longer exist. Ethnic leaders are not happy with that. What is your assessment of it?

MMS: Previously, the NLD planned to amend the Constitution based on agreements reached at the Union Peace Conference. But now, as it is trying to amend the Constitution with lawmakers only, ethnic armed organizations have been left out while political parties are included. The two key players, the NLD and the Tatmadaw, need to think about how to solve this.

KZM: Ko Thiha, if all sides reach an agreement, either through the committee or by other means, to change the Constitution to a certain extent, the democratic transition in our country will be smooth. It may take two years or more. But this will earn us credit both in ASEAN and the international community. What is your expectation, as the committee is due to submit its report in July? Do you think there will be favorable developments in the months to come?

TT: The NLD and ethnic parties desperately want to amend the Constitution. The problem arises because there are two different dreams—their dream of how they want to build the country and the Tatmadaw’s dream of how it wants to keep the country going. So, they need to negotiate over their dreams first. The Tatmadaw is resisting constitutional amendment. Though it says it wants to amend the Constitution, it is concerned that the amendments will have a negative impact on what they have built. It takes a defensive position and resists. In my view, the Tatmadaw should think about the changes envisioned by the ethnic groups and democratic forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and make appropriate changes to achieve that change.

KZM: U Maung Maung Soe, my last question. Myanmar people respect the Tatmadaw, and basically accept that the Tatmadaw is necessary. But the question is how the Tatmadaw will gradually retreat from politics. How should the Tatmadaw act to win the love of the people and not be cursed by the people? When Myanmar finally becomes a truly democratic country—it may take a long time, perhaps 30 years or so—the Tatmadaw will only have to focus on its state defense duties. How realistic should the Myanmar Tatmadaw act in these years?

MMS: First of all, there is national reconciliation, because the two sides cannot crush each other.  Because of this, there must be compromises. Secondly, taking a look at the past, if one side thinks it has been right all along, it will be hard to solve the problem. Because the conflict is happening between two sides; if one side has always been right all along, the other side would have always been wrong. This won’t solve the problem. So I think people will accept it if the Tatmadaw and the NLD, which are the two main stakeholders now, objectively and responsibly judge the rights and wrongs of history.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions! We will wait and see if the ending turns out to be a happy one for Myanmar!