Burma Parliament May Review Constitution

By Aye Aye Win 19 March 2013

RANGOON — Lawmakers in Burma say Parliament may agree this week to establish a commission that would consider amending the country’s 2008 pro-military constitution, which critics charge is undemocratic.

A lawmaker from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, Phyo Min Thein, says the two houses of Parliament might agree Wednesday to form the commission.

The NLD has long said that the Constitution is undemocratic because of provisions that allow the military to control a substantial percentage of parliamentary seats and disqualify Suu Kyi from running for the presidency.

However, the proposal to establish the commission comes from President Thein Sein’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. Some members of the party say they want to change provisions concerning state governments to allow ethnic minorities increased self-rule.

Conflict with ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy has bedeviled Burma since it obtained independence from Britain in 1948, and has often involved armed rebellions.

If Parliament votes to establish the body, its first task will be to determine if the Constitution should be amended.

The Constitution was basically dictated by the former military government in which Thein Sein served as prime minister, and the USDP was set up largely to serve the military’s interests.

Since coming to office in 2011, Thein Sein has instituted a series of significant political and economic reforms after almost five decades of repressive army rule. A major achievement was convincing Suu Kyi’s party to rejoin the electoral process, and it won 43 of 44 seats it contested in by-elections last year.

While USDP members says a constitutional review is not aimed at meeting Suu Kyi’s demands, the process sends a signal that the government party is flexible and perhaps willing to make some sort of deal with her party before the 2015 general election.

Aye Mauk, a USDP lawmaker, said a constitution review committee would deal with chapters regarding ethnic minorities, and other political issues would likely also be considered.

“Some modifications of the constitution have to be made after peace talks with ethnic groups and issues regarding autonomy in state and region levels will be considered during the review process,” he said. One provision that might be changed is the president’s prerogative to appoint state-level chief ministers. Many border areas dominated by ethnic minorities would like to elect their own.

Phyo Min Thein suggested the ruling party proposal was meant to reward Suu Kyi for her moderate position in a dispute over a copper mine. Suu Kyi headed a committee that recommended that operations at the Letpadaung copper mine in northwestern Burma be allowed to continue to honor the joint venture contract with neighboring China and reassure potential foreign investors.

Residents near the mine had mounted strong protests against it, and said they were greatly disappointed that Suu Kyi failed to support their demands that the mine stop operating because of environmental damage.