Charter Referendum, of Dubious Import, to Be Held With Election: Shwe Mann

By The Irrawaddy 1 July 2015

RANGOON — Democracy advocates have long looked to 2015 as a chance for the Burmese people to elect their leaders in a credible vote for the first time in 25 years. On Wednesday, Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann said the historic nature of the election, expected in early November, would have the added momentousness of being held concurrently with a national referendum on constitutional reform.

Unfortunately for proponents of substantive change, the latter vote will only concern deciding whether to change a single provision of the contentious charter, and the tweak in wording appears to be of little practical significance.

Parliament last week failed to surpass a required 75 percent threshold in votes to change key provisions of the Constitution, including an effort to dilute the military’s power in the legislature.

In secret balloting on Thursday, proposed changes to five of six articles were scrapped during a vote in which militarily appointed lawmakers are believed to have exercised their effective veto over constitutional reform.

One proposed change, however, was approved by nearly 88 percent of lawmakers: Article 59(d), which under the current Constitution states that the country’s president and vice presidents “shall be well acquainted with the affairs of the Union such as political, administrative, economic and military [affairs].”

In November, voters will go to the polls to determine whether Article 59(d) should instead require familiarity with political, administrative, economic and defense matters, with lawmakers agreeing last week that the word “defense” should replace the current “military” affairs.

The Constitution requires a nationwide referendum to change certain charter provisions if they are first approved by more than 75 percent of lawmakers. Article 59(d) is among them.

The charter referendum will be held jointly with the general election later this year to save on polling expenditures, Shwe Mann said on Wednesday.

“It would cost less and the Union Election Commission [UEC] will be informed about the plan,” he said during a morning session of Parliament.

Min Thu, a lawmaker for the National League for Democracy (NLD), said Shwe Mann’s announcement left him puzzled, with the opposition parliamentarian urging prudence from the UEC.

“It would be funny to hold a nationwide referendum to fix only one Article while other important ones are neglected,” he said. “It will depend on the UEC, whether they accept what U Shwe Mann said.”