Burma’s Top Leaders Divided Over Constitutional Reform

By Tha Lun Zaung Htet & Htet Naing Zaw 4 April 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s top leaders are clarifying their stances on constitutional reform, with obvious rifts forming between the president and the army chief on the one hand, and the speaker of the legislature on the other.

In a speech to mark the third anniversary of his government’s inauguration, President Thein Sein told Parliament on March 26 that the amendment process must proceed according to the current 2008 charter, which effectively gives the military a veto over any proposed changes.

One day later, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, said at the Armed Forces Day parade that Parliament must follow Chapter 12 of the current Constitution, which holds that constitutional reform can only take place with support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers. Twenty-five percent of seats in the legislature belong to military-appointed representatives.

The speeches of the president and the army chief stand in contrast with the views of Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, who has urged the parliamentary committee in charge of constitutional reform to focus on amending Chapter 12. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society are also campaigning against the military’s veto over amendments.

Phyo Min Thein, an NLD member of Parliament, said the opposing viewpoints were obvious. “If they have disagreements, they should bring them to the table at the council meeting,” he recommended, referring to the National Defense and Security Council, an 11-member council that includes Thein Sein, Shwe Mann and Min Aung Hlaing.

But according to military sources close to the council, opinions are so divided that Burma’s top leaders have been unable to find common ground. Last year, Shwe Mann requested weekly council meetings, the military sources say, but as disagreements have continued over constitutional reform and other issues, the meetings have been much more sporadic.

Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman, denies that council meetings are no longer regular. “They even had it last week,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Over the past month, protests have increased across the country in support of constitutional reform, with hundreds and sometimes several thousand demonstrators participating.

Phone Myint Aung, a member of Parliament from the New National Democracy Party, said the commander-in-chief would likely have the last word.

“In his speech, he said the army would not give up its position which is permitted in the Constitution,” the lawmaker told The Irrawaddy. “So even though discussions are ongoing in the council about fixing the charter, it’s likely that he will have the final say.”

More than half of the 11-member council was appointed by military members of Parliament, including one of the country’s two vice presidents, the commander-in-chief and his deputy, and the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs.