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Politics

Take Care With Constitutional Reform

Constitutional change is crucial, and we should be careful that any attempt to achieve it is not counter-productive.


The more I hear about amending our country’s Constitution, the more skeptical I become.

“To have a free and fair election in 2015, I have to say we should amend Section 59F of the Constitution,” the powerful speaker of Parliament, Shwe Mann, said at a press conference in Naypyidaw late last week, reiterating several previous calls for constitutional change.

The comment likely stirred excitement among many of my fellow Burmese citizens, because Section 59F of the 2008 Constitution currently bars democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president after the 2015 election.

One of many controversial sections in the charter, it puts the presidency and vice presidency off limits to anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi and her late husband, the British academic Michael Aris, had two children who are British.

Since a quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011, Shwe Mann, an ex-general in the former military regime, has talked more than enough about Constitutional reform. But despite his confidence, I continue to doubt that we will see an opportunity to change the charter before 2015, and I wonder if he is simply giving people false hope.

The country’s former military leaders remain in government and Parliament, and it is difficult to imagine that they genuinely wish to amend the Constitution, which many of them helped draft undemocratically. The charter guarantees that they will continue to play a key role in politics, retaining their hold on important businesses and amassing even greater wealth as a result.

It is true that Parliament has formed a committee to review the 2008 document, but not everyone in Naypyidaw seems so supportive. At the press conference last week, Shwe Mann specifically called on the government to allow constitutional change, indicating that President Thein Sein’s administration has not fully given a green light. In the past, Thein Sein has said that lawmakers are responsible for amendments, but as president he has the power to make a move himself—if he wants to. Thus far, he seems less than enthusiastic.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

If the president is blocking constitutional change, he is not the only one. Most leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are also obstructing this type of reform, along with high-ranking members of the military, and Suu Kyi is not oblivious. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate knows that any amendments will require the blessing of former generals who once held her under house arrest and who continue to remain in power today.

“Without the support of the ruling party, the USDP, and the military, it will not be possible for us to amend the Constitution as it is, because the provisions for amendment are so rigid,” she said recently during a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London. “I’m told that it’s the most rigid in the world. I have been told by constitutional experts that there is no other Constitution so difficult to amend as the Burmese one.”

She certainly faces a challenge convincing the USDP. Shwe Mann is chairman of the party and an important advocate, but he is an exception to the rule; most USDP leaders are not likely to agree with him. And it seems even less likely that military leaders will approve changes to the charter, unless lawmakers agree not to revise sections directly related to the military’s role in politics. As the Constitution stands now, 25 percent of seats in Parliament are reserved for military appointees.

Adding to Suu Kyi’s difficulties, opposition parties and ethnic groups lack unity on the issue of constitutional change. There are two camps. One side, including Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), wants to amend the Constitution. The other side, including a majority of ethnic groups, wants to completely discard the current charter and rewrite a new one.

The latter option seems unrealistic, and perhaps counterproductive, as military leaders believe their highest responsibility is to safeguard the 2008 document. If the opposition threatens to scrap it, the military could, in a worst-case scenario, seize all power again.

Last month, the military-backed USDP offered an off-putting warning. In a statement on Oct. 5, it said that if Parliament revoked the current Constitution and rewrote a new one, the public could be “in serious danger and face consequences beyond expectation.”

“The people will suffer bad consequences,” the party wrote.

There is no question that Burma needs a democratic Constitution, and for that, the current charter will need to be amended or rewritten. But however hopeful Shwe Mann seems, the Burmese people should not forget the mentality of those who lead the country. Constitutional change is crucial, and we should be careful that any attempt to achieve it is not counterproductive.