Charter Referendum ‘Unlikely’ in May: Ethnic Leader

By Yen Saning 20 April 2015

RANGOON — A nationwide referendum on amending Burma’s controversial Constitution is unlikely to take place in May as a senior parliamentary leader has previously suggested, according to an ethnic politician involved in high-level talks on the matter.

Aye Maung, the chairman of the Arakan National Party who was selected to represent ethnic interests in six-party reform talks with the country’s leading political figures, said Parliament had failed to make the necessary preparations required to hold the referendum within the proposed timeframe.

“I don’t think it [the referendum] is likely to be held in May. … We have to look back and analyze whether the tasks [required] to hold the referendum were done by Parliament in April,” the lawmaker said, referring to a parliamentary session that wrapped up on April 10.

“If we schedule to hold a referendum on May 31, all the articles to be amended must have already been approved by over 75 percent of votes in the Union Parliament two weeks before the set date.”

He said even then, it would take time to complete the administrative procedures necessary for a referendum to take place, such as the formation of a committee tasked with handling the vote, the compilation of voter lists and the logistical preparations required for polling day.

The speaker of the Union Parliament, Shwe Mann, said in November that a referendum to amend the military-drafted Constitution would be held in May of this year.

Aye Maung said high-level agreement in the six-party talks—first held on April 10 in Naypyidaw and involving himself, President Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, parliamentary leaders and the Burma Army commander in chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing—was critical to prospects for constitutional reform. The six-party dialogue, according to Aye Maung, is intended to reach a deal on specific changes to the charter, with that proposal then needing to go before Parliament where it would require the backing of more than 75 percent of lawmakers in order for a referendum to occur.

The preliminary six-party meeting concluded with few details disclosed about the substance of the discussion, and the parties have reportedly agreed to further talks as soon as next month.

A report submitted last year by a 31-member parliamentary committee formed to review possible amendments to the charter could serve as a basis for those discussions. It recommended more than 100 specific changes to the Constitution.

“The next meeting is scheduled only after May 11, so there is very little chance [for the referendum] to take place [next month],” he said, referring to the date that Parliament is due to reconvene.

“We had proposed to meet between April 21 and May 11, but it seems like the state leaders don’t have time. … From [presidential spokesman] Ye Htut’s statement, it’s likely to happen sometime between May 11 and 17. When we meet for the second time, we will be able to discuss the articles in detail,” Aye Maung said, adding that a referendum would not take place until the last week of June “at the earliest.”

Asked by The Irrawaddy about prospects for a May referendum, the director general of the Union Election Commission (UEC), Tin Tun, on Monday said “we know nothing at all” about how the process might play out.

Under a Referendum Law approved by the president in February, the UEC is responsible for “supervising” the vote, including by announcing a date for the vote 30 days in advance and forming committees nationwide to implement a referendum. The UEC is also tasked with compiling eligible voter lists ahead of the referendum.

Political commentator Yan Myo Thein agreed with Aye Maung’s assessment, citing the shrinking window in which to submit a draft referendum law to Parliament and the deliberations that would need to ensue prior to the passage of any legislation.

“There are many steps. It’s not possible yet,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Ethnic groups and Suu Kyi have been at the forefront of calls to amend the 2008 charter, which critics view as a deeply flawed document that lacks democratic legitimacy. Suu Kyi has focused her scrutiny on the political power that the Constitution grants to the military and a provision barring her from the presidency, while ethnic groups want to see changes that would devolve power under a federal system of governance.