Will the Myanmar Military Ever Allow Charter Reform?

By The Irrawaddy 14 March 2020

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Taking a look at the results from voting on constitutional amendments submitted by the National League for Democracy (NLD) to the Union Parliament, we see some answers to the question of who has the real power in Myanmar.

On the first day of voting [on Tuesday], 14 amendments proposed by the NLD were put to a vote, but no significant changes could be made. We can assume that the military lawmakers and their allies won’t vote for significant changes in the coming days. In other words, the amendments may end in failure. We will discuss how the people—and analysts—view this. Ma Mon Mon Myat, a political analyst and PhD candidate studying peacebuilding at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Ko Thiha Thu, or Ko Sanny, the founder and director of Than Lwin Citizen Empowerment Program, who is also a former political prisoner and took part in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Fourteen proposed amendments were put to vote, and the NLD failed. The amendment to reduce the political role of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] failed. The provisions were left unchanged as they didn’t receive the required support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers. It appears that people were disappointed even though they had not expected much. Ma Mon Mon Myat, how do you feel and how do you assess the outcome?

Mon Mon Myat: I made the critique [on Tuesday] that the Parliament is disabled but strong.

KZM: By the way, only two proposals—the changes to the written term for “disabled” in Burmese—received approval. Please go on.

MMM: I said so because [the Parliament] might be strong in some areas even though it is disabled. I try to be constructive in my thinking. People had high hopes about charter amendment. Efforts were made to change the Constitution, and until the last minute, we all waited in hope for the votes from military lawmakers. As military personnel come from among the people, we waited with the hope that they would consider the wishes of the people. Most of the people understand that charter amendment is unlikely. Everyone knows the answer. It is all understood. But we still have hope, because the Parliament is tasked with making and amending laws.

As the State Peace and Development Council government designed the Constitution to make it impossible to change, it included a clause that requires the approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers for any change. It is not strange that the Constitution can’t be amended. But the Parliament is also tasked with legislation, so we can expect legislative actions from the Parliament. We will maintain our expectations until the voting on charter amendment is over.

KZM: The NLD has proposed reducing the required majority for amendments to the Constitution to two-thirds of elected lawmakers. It is unlikely that this will be passed. The NLD is an elected government, but when it comes to constitutional reform, it can only move within the boundaries of the Constitution, and it appears it does not want to overstep this boundary. Taking a look at the voting results, the elected government—the elected Parliament—doesn’t have the real power. Military lawmakers have a veto over constitutional change. Ko Sanny what can we still expect in this gridlock?

Thiha Thu: It is true that the people were disappointed with the results of the vote. Those who are interested in politics and those who had high hopes feel more disappointed. We are disappointed too. The NLD, under the guidance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, entered the Parliament in order to change the Constitution to achieve real democracy at a time when we are undergoing democratic transition. This fact is indisputable. The good from Tuesday’s voting is that it showed the NLD following through towards its goal. This is good.

Fourteen out of the 55 proposed amendments under Article 436 (a), which require the approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers plus a national referendum, were put to a vote on Tuesday. Of them, only two proposals regarding the terminology about ‘disabled’ in Burmese were passed, but all the key amendments to the basic principles of the Union failed. This was telling and shows that military lawmakers refuse to allow amendments. This tells us that there is an enormous challenge in amending the Constitution in the Parliament.

The alarm bell has been rung. Political leaders, parties and those who are interested in politics and the people as a whole have heard this alarm. This is a good point, I think. It is important to reach a political agreement if there will be any charter amendments through the parliament. It is difficult to amend the Constitution because there is still no political agreement.

If [the military] is willing, constitutional amendments can be made overnight. The current outcome shows that much greater efforts are needed to make politically effective changes. I just mean it is good to see this fact.

KZM: The military lawmakers are controlled by the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and they will act according to his instructions. The leadership is the key, as you have suggested. Political entities and activists have called for dialogue between the two sides, but this appears unlikely because there is a question about the political will of the military leadership. If this situation goes on like this, and the military leadership, either the current leadership or new leadership, have the same attitude beyond the 2020 election, what do you think should be done?

MMM: Fear and charter reform are connected. The Constitution was designed by the military regime and was amended once under U Thein Sein’s administration. The military locked the Constitution out of fear. The last law passed by the Parliament under U Thein Sein’s administration is for U Thein Sein—it was the Former President’s Security Law. It is concerned with fears about individual people and individual organizations. Similarly, the first law enacted by the Parliament under the elected government is State Counselor Law. Then measures were taken to amend the laws related to political prisoners and laws that threaten the security of citizens. Citizens have fears and so do rulers. So, to amend the Constitution, we need to see how we can alleviate the fears of the military leadership and military personnel. Any government in power must take this fact into consideration. Only then will constitutional changes be possible.

KMZ: In other words, the military feels insecure about charter amendments, but there is barely any move to draw retrospective legislation against them. As Ma Mon Mon Myat has suggested, they don’t want to amend the Constitution because they have concerns that their interests will be harmed.

Ko Sanny, speaking of constitutional freedom, not every country has it. Though our country has a certain degree of democracy, we can’t enjoy such things as the citizens’ rights or the rule of law if the Constitution is not designed to meet the norms of a real democracy. So, how would this country move forward in democratic transition?

TT: The military leadership has repeatedly talked about establishing a federal democracy. But when the proposed amendments were put to a vote, the military lawmakers voted against them. Less than 61 percent of lawmakers voted in favor of the proposed amendments. So despite the fact that they are talking about how much they want a federal democracy, they are against it in reality, perhaps because of insecurity about their interests, as you have suggested.

My view is that the leadership from the two sides is important for constitutional change. Without actions from the leadership, no matter how many votes are held in Parliament, at best only the terminology can be changed. It is pointless to hold a national referendum to approve changes in terminology—the leadership should negotiate and make compromises.

KZM: This is what everyone is suggesting. But they can do nothing as the two sides do not bother to meet. Perhaps one side has a more hardline attitude than the other. If the military does not cooperate on charter reform—some of the military lawmakers are even posting photos saying that they won the vote—to what extent will this further affect its image among the international community? In the eyes of the international community, the military has rejected the amendments proposed by the NLD and ethnic parties which are trying for democratic change. To what extent can this affect us? Our country is faced with the ICJ [International Court of Justice] and the UN over human rights violations, and the military leadership is specifically targeted. Ma Mon Mon Myat, will this have negative consequences for the military?

MMM: The military, which designed the Constitution, does not want to lose its power. It is obvious that it still wants to play a major role in state building. It becomes clearer as the international community is also monitoring the situation. It becomes clearer that military lawmakers have become a barrier to any civilian groups that try to amend the Constitution.

KZM: Ko Sanny, charter reform has reached a deadlock. One side wants to amend it, but the other side doesn’t accept it. The process has reached an impasse and it has become difficult to amend the Constitution through parliament. But the situation may change with the change in leadership, either in the military or on the other side. How do you think Myanmar citizens should proceed in the current situation? The 2020 general election is coming soon, and it is important for the NLD to win the election in order to continue implementing its policies and charter reform. Ko Sanny, what is your assessment?

TT: For the part of the people, they will vote again for the NLD because they believe the NLD is the only way out of the charter crisis. In other words, they have trust in the NLD leader, so they will vote for the NLD. It is unlikely that the NLD can outperform its electoral victory in 2015, but even if it can secure the same result as in 2015, it will not be able to change the Constitution. Changes can only be made when the NLD can get the nod from around 85 percent of military lawmakers. This is still impossible, so the situation will go on like this. No matter which party wins the elections in 2020 and 2025—though the NLD is likely to win them—constitutional changes are unlikely. So, it is important to initiate genuine political reforms before the 2020 [election] and after the 2020 [election]. The NLD plays a major role in this—it needs to be strong and provide effective leadership. The NLD leadership is important. They know what changes people want to see, and if they work diligently, people will support their party. As public support can result in a shift in politics, this can lead to change in the Parliament.

KZM: But then the NLD needs to choose the right people. We have seen many NLD chief ministers and lawmakers criticized for their comments and actions. We have found that many in the public don’t like them. Ko Sanny, Ma Mon Mon Myat: thank you for your contributions!

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