RANGOON — Opinions on amending Burma’s controversial Constitution are divided as parliamentarians prepare to reconvene on Monday, with charter reform likely to be a major subject of debate during the next legislative session.
A bill on charter reform has been drafted by Parliament’s Implementation Committee on Constitutional Amendments, and the bill is could be submitted to the Union Parliament and put to a vote sometime after the legislature returns on Monday.
But Min Thu, a Lower House lawmaker from the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said with odds stacked against the bill at present, charter reform advocates’ best hope might be to wait out upcoming high-level discussions before the issue is taken up by Parliament.
“The bill on proposed constitutional amendments is very unlikely to win passage there,” Min Thu told The Irrawaddy.
“In the Union Parliament, theoretically, civilians have 75 percent of the seats while the military has 25 [percent]. But with the deaths or resignations of some MPs, we only have just over 70 percent. We will never win unless we have support from the military representatives. That would only happen if the army chief gives them the nod.”
Burma’s military-drafted Constitution can only be amended with a yes vote from more than 75 percent of Union parliamentarians, after which it would go to a national referendum, where more than 50 percent of voters must approve.
But with the materialization of a long-awaited six-party meeting last month on constitutional reform and Burma’s upcoming national elections, and with more high-level discussions to come, hopes for amending the charter are increasingly being pinned on those talks.
The six-party dialogue on April 10 in Naypyidaw involved President Thein Sein, both parliamentary speakers, the Burma Army commander in chief, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a representative for Burma’s ethnic minorities.
“Given the current situation inside the Parliament, we can do nothing,” Min Thu said. “So, dialogues outside Parliament, like the six-party talks, are becoming more important.”
A legal expert, Ko Ni, shared the NLD lawmaker’s assessment of the political dynamics at play.
The lawyer explained the reason to have an agreement on fixing the constitution among stakeholders because the participants of the talks are Burma’s biggest political players and they represent the government, parliament, army, opposition and ethnic interests.
If the six leaders come to an agreement, their respective factions would fall in line, making a vote by Parliament a mere formality, he said.
“That’s why we are waiting for the outcome [of the talks],” said Ko Ni.
Burma’s Constitution has been controversial since its enactment. It was drafted by the country’s former military regime and passed in a rigged referendum in 2008, just a few days after the powerful Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta region, killing more than 130,000 people. Given the circumstances of the vote, the charter is jokingly referred to in some circles as the “Nargis Constitution.”
The charter has been locally and internationally criticized as undemocratic, owing to provisions that grant 25 percent of seats in Parliament to unelected military representatives; ban opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most popular political figure, from the presidency; and centralize authority in a way that ethnic groups say has stymied their political aspirations.
A Long Road to Reform
Suu Kyi has been calling for constitutional change for several years now. The NLD chairwoman and the pro-democracy group 88 Generation Peace and Open Society organized a nationwide petition to amend the Constitution last year, garnering nearly 5 million signatures in favor of reform. The petition, which was submitted to Parliament, also encouraged nationwide public demonstrations calling for charter reform.
The six-party dialogue, first proposed by Parliament and later endorsed by Suu Kyi, was ignored by Thein Sein until last month, with the president saying the proposed format was not all-inclusive and that the Constitution should be amended in accordance with the charter’s provisions, effectively putting the ball back in Parliament’s court.
In the wake of the talks on April 10, the President’s Office, quoting presidential spokesman Ye Htut, said a timetable for the next meeting had been agreed and that “all participants freely and openly discussed in a brotherly way and reached agreement,” without elaborating the date of the next gathering or the nature of the “agreement” reached.
The second-round six-party talks is expected to take place after Parliament reconvenes on Monday.
Though the six-party stage is seen as increasingly important to breaking the constitutional impasse, political commentator Yan Myo Thein said he did not see the necessary political will to produce concrete results.
“Frankly speaking, there is no way to fix the charter as long as the military and USDP [ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party] lawmakers don’t support the changes on major articles,” he said, referring to articles like 436 and 59(f), some of the charter’s most criticized provisions.
“I also don’t expect any tangible outcomes from the talks because I don’t see they [the government and military] have any political will to reform the constitution. That’s why the bill to amend the charter still hasn’t been submitted yet, after two years,” he said, referring to Parliament’s decision to first take up the issue in 2013. “That’s the most evident example [of a lack of political will].”
Myint Tun, an Upper House Lawmaker for the USDP, said it was too early to comment on the upcoming parliamentary session.
“I would like to talk after the legislature’s resumption on Monday,” he said.
Sai Thiha Kyaw, a Lower House lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said six-party talks were not the only hope for the realization of ethnic minorities’ aspirations, such as constitutional amendments and the granting of equal rights to minorities. The president and army chief could unilaterally decide to make the changes, he explained.
“If they say, ‘Let’s change the Constitution because we want peace,’ their associates in the Parliament will do as they are told. That’s why I said those leaders play the most important role,” he said.
“If we have meetings without any result, what should we expect out of them?” he added.