Is Myanmar’s Democracy Lost in a Labyrinth of Constitutional Amendment?

By The Irrawaddy 11 March 2020

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Many believe that the Constitution of our country Myanmar is the most rigid constitution in the world. As the NLD [National League for Democracy] and ethnic parties are trying to amend the constitution, it is fair to say that they are in a complicated maze. NLD Upper House lawmaker U Aung Thein and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) Lower House lawmaker U Sai Tun Aye join me in Naypyitaw to discuss the potential ways through this political maze. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

We have been trying to find our way through the Constitution, which was adopted in 2008. But I have seen little possibility of getting through. One side, consisting of the Tatmadaw and the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party), wants “disciplined democracy,” and another side wants true democracy. Do you have any ideas or means to find the way out of this maze?

Aung Thein: It should be noted that the Constitution was designed under military rule. As the military formulated the Constitution, it gave itself privileges and asserted its importance. It is the responsibility of the military to find the way out, I think. We elected lawmakers, as the representatives of the people, have tried to amend the Constitution. But the military has opposed most of the proposed amendments.

Though we are talking about the public demand for constitutional changes, it is the military that has the final say. There are lawmakers representing ethnic parties, the NLD, the USDP and the military in the Parliament. Even if the full 75 percent of lawmakers who are elected approve the changes, we still can’t amend the Constitution unless a military lawmaker casts a “yes” vote. We have to function based on this rigid Constitution. So my view is that he who closes the door should open it.

KZM: How?

AT: It all depends on the political will of the military leadership to push for democratization and to change their mindset. This is the key.

KZM: What U Aung Thein said is indisputable in principle. But what if we are looking for results? The debate on charter amendment bills was slated to be complete on March 5, with the voting to take place next week. But the military has the veto—though they may not be happy with this choice of word—over constitutional changes. It is unlikely that more than 75 percent will vote to approve the amendments. If not, all that has been done since 2019 will be in vain and at a standstill. What’s the key to this situation?

Sai Tun Aye: The Constitution needs to be changed according to Article 436 (a) and (b) of Chapter 12. Any amendment needs the approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers. This means elected lawmakers are in no position to amend it. Our country is in grinding poverty and lagging behind countries in the region in all aspects. This is the hardship facing our citizens. The Constitution can be amended if the military lawmakers act in the interest of the country and citizens.

We hope to see a progressive general [of the Myanmar military] in the next few years. According to the experiences of other countries, say, the Philippines, progressive generals like Fidel Ramos initiated reforms. In Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono led the smooth democratization process. In the case of Myanmar, generals used their authority to pave the way for the country to transform from a military dictatorship to democracy. We hope that in Myanmar’s future, there will be a sympathetic general who will save future generations of the country from hardship and difficulties. In this, there is a possibility that the Constitution will be changed. But for the time being, the Constitution is impossible to change and I think it can’t be amended even if the Indra [the King of Heaven] comes down to amend it.

KZM: Most of the audience watching this will agree with what U Sai Tun Aye said. But it appears that it all depends on the other side to allow the changes. Perhaps, the generals of Indonesia, Korea and Thailand and their counterparts in Myanmar have different ways of thinking. It might be because of their different historical backgrounds. I don’t think the Constitution can be amended just by waiting and doing nothing. There must be some compromises. The NLD and ethnic parties called for dialogue 30 years ago, but the military hasn’t moved. What if they are not willing to engage in dialogue to change the Constitution?

AT: Give and take is part of politics. But what are we expected to give? We are the elected government, and what compromises are we expected to make with the military? Both the military and the ruling party should act in the interests of the people. We are not sure if military leaders prefer the Parliament or the 21st Century Panglong Conference for charter amendment talks.

KZM: It is part of the mindset or ideology of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] to always take a political leadership role in the country. A military lawmaker said in the debate on charter amendment bills that the democracy will be chaotic if the military does not hold political leadership. So this is the ideological problem, I think: what can be done to get rid of the military’s ideological belief that they must have political leadership, and the notion of a guided or disciplined democracy that comes from military leadership? Only then, will they be willing to change the Constitution. Rather than disciplined democracy, we need genuine federal democracy. What can be done to achieve this?

STA: I don’t accept the notion that any institution should always maintain a political leadership role in any country. In my opinion, national politics is created to cover up racial chauvinism. In fact, there is no national politics—but every country has national interests, and this should be the case in Myanmar. Trying to control everything in the name of national politics sounds dictatorial.

KZM: So you think national politics is in fact racial chauvinism. What is your assessment of the ruling NLD party in that regard? It is dominated by ethnic Bamar.

STA: One of [the NLD’s] advantages is that it is the elected government, and its policy is to build a federal, democratic Union. It has put efforts into national reconciliation, so compared with the military government, the NLD is an elected and democratic government, and their stances are more moderate. However, the political space for ethnic parties is restricted by the 2008 Constitution. Under the 2008 Constitution, no ethnic person can expect to become the president, because the Constitution barely guarantees equality. Charter amendment is connected with peace and national reconciliation. The Charter does not provide equality or space to solve problems through political means—this will perpetuate armed struggle.

KZM: Ethnic people barely enjoy equal rights and the situation is even worse in conflict areas. The Constitution is the key to establishing a federal, democratic Union, which will provide equal rights. How should the Constitution be amended?

AT: We have been trying to amend it appropriately. If we keep silent at the Parliament, the 25 percent [of military lawmakers] will become more resistant. As the mandate of the Parliament is that “The Parliament represents the wishes and voices of the people,” we elected lawmakers will make their voices heard. This is our task. If the 25 percent turn a deaf ear even as we are making the people’s voices heard, they will be held responsible. The legislative culture is intended to solve political problems through political means.

KZM: The NLD has to be careful not to impact national reconciliation with any of its moves, including amending the Constitution and building a federal, democratic Union. The NLD said the Constitution must be amended within the boundaries of the law and must not affect national reconciliation. So it appears that [the party] will not push for constitutional amendment if the other side is angry and unwilling to amend the Constitution.

You elected lawmakers have made your voices heard and the members of the public that we have interviewed speak with one voice. What will happen if the Constitution can’t be amended? As I’ve said, we are lost in a maze. What are the other ways out? Or can we only hope that the next military leader will agree to changes?

STA: It is the nature of the world that nothing lasts for long. The 1947 Constitution, which did not enshrine equality as demanded by ethnic people, came to an end 14 years after its adoption as the military staged a coup. Similarly, the 1974 Constitution also collapsed amid the national uprising [in 1988], because the wishes of the people were ignored and democracy was falling dead. The current Constitution has been in force for around 10 years and our country seriously lags behind in all aspects. This is quite sad. Our country is big, with a moderate population size and vast amounts of arable land. Its human resources are not bad. But as we have never had a good constitution, our country is always ranked lowest in international indexes. I think [the military] understands that something must be done to save the country.

KZM: Only the Tatmadaw and the USDP have opposed the process to amend the Constitution. But on the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the other side. I mean the amendments proposed by the NLD suggest reducing the military bloc from 25 percent to 15 percent in the 2020 election, decreasing by a further 5 percent in each election. Some ethnic lawmakers support this, but other ethnic lawmakers insist that no unelected lawmaker should sit in the Parliament. Lawmakers might be divided into two or three groups over this disagreement. Is this an advantage for the other side?

AT: My view is that [the military] intends to use the Constitution as the shield. If we reduce their percentage [of representatives], they might think they are being forced backward. We don’t want to cross the line by asking the military to leave. So the question is whether we will wait for a day when the military wakes up to the needs of the country and voluntarily amends the Constitution.

KZM: It will take time.

AT: Yes, it will. They took over 12 years to design the Constitution. This shows they were extremely careful to preserve their interests. The SNLD and the NLD boycotted the process. History can’t be hidden. We boycotted because we couldn’t accept the Constitution they were drafting. They are strong. The military briefly took power in 1958 after the country gained independence [in 1948] and they staged the coup in 1962. They ruled the country for many years and still have that influence. Some suggest taking a cue from countries like the Philippines. But we can’t always copy others exactly.

I understand people have negative feelings [about what the military has done]. But if we are to try to shape the future of our country to be the best it can, we should just let bygones be bygones. If it’s hard for leaders from the two sides to even meet, all we, the elected lawmakers, can do is to make our voices heard.

KZM: So we are still lost in this maze. From your discussion, it seems the NLD, the SNLD and other parties are not able to make military leaders change their minds. What can ethnic parties do to make military leaders change their minds?

STA: I don’t think an individual can make the military change its mind. But my view is that the conflicts and problems of the country and the [socio-economic] conditions of the citizens will one day finally force them to leave politics. If not, our country will become a failed state. I hope they will have the political will one day, due to the situation I have mentioned.

AT: I can accept the Tatmadaw in politics, or national politics as they call it, on the condition that generals resign from the military before entering politics. In the case of General Aung San, he resigned from the military to engage in politics. He left the military once and for all. The generals can engage in politics that way. I can accept that.

KZM: But there is already the USDP [formed by ex-military generals].

AT: Yes, the military is supporting the USDP. I mean, if generals want to do politics, then resign from the military.

STA: But those who have resigned from the military to engage in politics are not doing well, and [current generals and officers] therefore don’t want to resign from the military.

AT: The military has total power and authority, so if they resign and join the party, their power and authority will decline. If they act for their individual interests rather than the national interest, our dreams will remain distant.

KZM: To conclude from both of your points, it appears that the Constitution can be amended only when the military changes its mind. We can only watch and see if worsening problems will actually push the country in a positive direction, as U Sai Tun Aye has suggested, or if our country will remain locked in a stalemate, or if the situation will only get worse.

AT: It appears that we will remain in this vicious circle.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions, though we haven’t been able to give an answer to the audience watching this.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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