Burma

Charter Amendments Won’t Pass Without Military Support: U Shwe Mann

By Htet Naing Zaw 5 August 2019

NAYPYITAW—Thura U Shwe Mann, the former Lower House speaker, said amendments to the 2008 Constitution are unlikely to pass unless and until cooperation and coordination is made with the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw).

Speaking to the press in Naypyitaw on Sunday, the ex-general stressed the importance of working with the Tatmadaw to overcome the constitutional crisis, but acknowledged that even with such cooperation, only amendments acceptable to the Tatmadaw will be possible.

“Without coordination and cooperation, difficulties will remain,” he said.

The Union Parliament is currently debating proposed amendments to the military-drafted Constitution, though military-appointed lawmakers have refused to participate in the process from the outset. A National League for Democracy (NLD)-led vote passed in Parliament in February to form a Charter Amendment Committee to study possible constitutional amendments, despite opposition from military-appointed lawmakers and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In July, that committee submitted its proposed amendments to Parliament.

Military lawmakers contend that the entire process, including the formation of the committee, is unconstitutional.

“Tatmadaw representatives have raised strong objection since the committee was formed, saying that it was against procedures. If negotiation is to be held, it is better to have negotiations between leaders [of the government and the military]. And they [military lawmakers] refused to participate in debate as they were instructed to do so from their leader,” said parliamentarian U Ye Htun of Hsipaw Township.

For instance, he said, Article 261 of the Constitution—which gives the Union president the power to appoint regional chief ministers—could be amended through thorough discussions between the two sides, transferring that power to local, elected legislatures.

There have been no reports of private talks between the State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Though sudden moves by the NLD to amend the constitution without prior military consultation have been widely seen as a political move to highlight the military’s resistance to charter amendments, the NLD’s proposed amendments also suggest they’re trying to pave a way to let the military withdraw gradually from Parliament, said Yangon-based journalist U Thiha Thwe.

The constitution currently grants the military 25 percent of parliamentary seats—the same number needed to veto any proposed amendment. The NLD has proposed reducing that number to 15 percent in the 2020 election and by a further 5 percent at each general election.

“Maybe the NLD wants to reap political gains, and maybe it is working sincerely to amend the constitution, but the NLD isn’t just making the military a villain to achieve political gains, it is also paving the way for the military [to withdraw slowly],” he said.

U Shwe Mann said that 54 constitutional provisions points were amended while he was serving as speaker under the U Thein Sein administration because he was able to cooperate with military lawmakers.

“I would say the constitution can’t be amended easily without cooperating with the Tatmadaw representatives, who hold 25 percent of seats,” he said.

But, said U Ye Htun, most of the amendments made then were minor, save for one that reworded presidential requirements to read that potential candidates must be familiar with the more general “defence” affairs of the Union than its specifically “military” affairs in order to be eligible for office.

At the time, the Union Parliament voted down a proposal which sought to limit the military’s legislative power by lowering the voting threshold for constitutional reform from 75 to 70 percent.

U Shwe Mann was once considered the third most powerful man in the military regime. He graduated from the Defense Services Academy in 1965 then rose through the ranks to become a general in 2010 and eventually being appointed chief of general staff, giving him authority over the army, navy and air force.

He ran in the 2010 elections as a USDP member and was elected Lower House speaker but was purged from the USDP’s top position in August 2015, in a power struggle with former president U Thein Sein.

His move to ally with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi before the 2015 election earned him the title of a turncoat among USDP supporters. He lost in the 2015 general election as a USDP member but in 2016 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi appointed him head of Parliament’s Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission.

The NLD-dominated Union Parliament voted—with opposition from the USDP and military-appointed lawmakers—to extend the commission’s term annually until this past February, when it voted to abolish the commission.

Just before the commission was abolished, U Shwe Mann formed his own political party, the Union Betterment Party, with the reported aim of supporting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and civilian governance in Myanmar.

In a meeting with locals in Mandalay in June, U Shwe Mann said he had established his own political party not for the sake of any individual or organization but purely in the public interest.

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