Constitutional Reforms — ‘It’s Time to Take a Step Forward’

By San Yamin Aung 1 February 2019

YANGON—The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) on Tuesday made its first official attempt to change the military-drafted 2008 Constitution since it took power in 2016.

A member of the party’s central executive committee, Upper House lawmaker U Aung Kyi Nyunt, submitted an urgent proposal to the Union Parliament to form a joint parliament committee to work on amending the charter as soon as possible.

The constitution, drafted by the then-ruling military junta, has been widely criticized as undemocratic. It reserves 25 percent of parliament seats—both regionally and nationally—for the military and gives the army’s chief the power to appoint three important ministers: defense, home affairs and border affairs. The army can also select one of the country’s three vice-presidents.

U Aung Kyi Nyunt on Tuesday told all lawmakers sitting in Parliament, including the military appointees, that the Constitution needs to be amended as it includes articles which are not in accordance with democratic standards, which contradict one another and prevent the establishment of a democratic federal union and a genuine multi-party democratic system. He added that some articles also fail to ensure mutual checks and balances between the three pillars of democracy and to ensure equal rights for citizen as well as free and fair elections.

His comments drew loud applause from supportive lawmakers, yet, as expected, the military—which sees safeguarding the Constitution as one of its main duties—boycotted U Aung Kyi Nyunt’s proposal. All military appointees in the Parliament stood up in an apparent sign of protest against his proposal.

This is not the first time a proposal by U Aung Kyi Nyunt caused uproar with the military. In April 2016, soon after the NLD took power, he submitted the bill that created the key new post of state counselor for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is barred from becoming president under the Constitution.

As before, the military’s disagreement on Tuesday was defeated by a majority of votes in approval of discussing the proposal in upcoming parliamentary sessions.

The Irrawaddy spoke to U Aung Kyi Nyunt about why the party is working on constitutional amendments now, how likely they are to be amended and what articles in the Constitution will be amended.

In your proposal on Tuesday, you mentioned that the purpose of the committee will be to facilitate attempts to amend the Constitution “as soon as possible”. How soon can the Constitution be amended?

I couldn’t guess the exact date or time of when the Constitution will be amended. Reforms have come of age to some extent now. We need changes [to the Constitution] to make it suitable for the current situation as well as for the ongoing peace process [in which some agreements have been reached on the basic principles for establishing a democratic federal union]. That’s why I submitted the proposal.

Some have criticized the NLD’s decision to work on constitutional amendments only now after three years in office.

It is easy to criticize, but the administration has been working on the Panglong Conference (a series of peace conferences), eternal peace, ceasefires, ending civil war as well as other administrative jobs. As for the legislative sector, I think if we can facilitate the constitutional amendments in a short time under the current circumstances, it would help smooth some [other ongoing processes]. In some cities, campaigns calling for constitutional reforms are also taking place. Therefore, I am proposing to start with the formation of the committee that can work systematically and transparently—to work not by a single party nor an organization, but with an all-inclusive approach for the future of our country. That’s it.

It is time to carry out constitutional reforms. If you ask why we didn’t attempt it in the past, we actually did attempt to amend the Constitution in the Parliament before [under the previous government’s term] but only few minor articles were amended [at that time] and it wasn’t effective. With the political reforms that have taken place in the country [since the NLD came to power], it is time to take a step forward.

So this is the first time an attempt to amend the Constitution has the potential to be successful?

What I can say is we are trying for that.

You made seven points in your proposal that said the existing Constitution includes articles that are not in accordance with democratic standards, which prevent peace and the establishment of a genuine democratic federal union, and so on. Considering those points, how many of the Constitution’s articles would need to be amended?

Under those points, there are many articles. But there could be different opinions on that. Those different opinions will be debated among the committee members which will be inclusive. I believe some of the articles contradict one another but there could be those who disagree with me on that. I can’t be dogmatic and believe that only what I say is right and other opinions are wrong. We will negotiate. That’s the first step we need to take now with all, including political parties and lawmakers, as well as military representatives.

The NLD’s central executive committee in early 2014 recommended 168 points for constitutional amendment. Will there be more than 100 articles that need to be amended under your points?

We have done a study, but that is our [NLD] view. We will also need to negotiate with others. It could be more than 100 clauses to be amended or less than that. What I would like to say is that rather than trying to win and lose over that, I wish to discuss them with the future of our country in mind, and how we would like to grow and what kind of nation we would like to leave for future generations.

Democratic forces want to amend the clause that reserves 25 percent of seats for the military in all parliaments; Article 436, which requires proposed changes to the charter to be supported by more than 75 percent of lawmakers; and Article 59 (f), which bars NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming Union president. Will those be included?

[Those] could be included. But the committee will decide on the amendments according to the different opinions of the military, other political parties, the public and experts.

The public wishes for the Constitution to be amended as soon as possible. Is it possible before the 2020 general election?

We have the will, and are working towards that, but will and reality are different things. The answer will depend on the circumstances and conditions that we will encounter, and I can’t much predict the future.

The military said it never has opposed amending the Constitution, but all military representatives stood up against your proposal and boycotted the vote. What do you think about their objections?

Yes, they said we can’t amend the constitution like this—that any move to amend the Constitution requires a draft bill signed by at least 20 [percent of] lawmakers. I think they objected as they wrongly thought that I am proposing constitutional reforms. The proposal is not for that step—I am urging for a committee to be formed which will work towards that step.

What would you like to say to those who are eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of the NLD’s election promises of amending the Constitution?

There have been no incidents within our capacity where we neglected the promises we made during the election. If the public knows the NLD is always trying to implement its promises, I am pleased.