Charter Reform Vote Ripples Through Ethnic Leadership, Further Damaging Trust

By Lawi Weng 26 June 2015

RANGOON — In the aftermath of Thursday’s constitutional reform battle, in which the legislature voted against major changes to the charter, a number of Burma’s ethnic armed groups predicted that the decision could drive an even deeper wedge into the country’s peace efforts.

Constitutional amendment has been central to peace talks between the government and ethnic rebels, and—in a response much like that of the country’s leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD)—ethnic leaders believe the “no” vote will hurt public support for the ruling party and the military from which it sprung.

Some pointed out, however, that it won’t actually matter; while the military has shown its true colors, it has still successfully held onto its power through the mechanisms it has created. The major fallout, it seems, could play out in ongoing peace discussions, rather than in the voting booth.

Nai Hong Sar, who leads ethnic peace negotiations as vice chairman of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and head of a new similar bloc, said the veto has caused further damage to the already weak trust between stakeholders.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, Nai Hong Sar said the Burma Army is bound to “lose support from their people, and even lose trust in the peace process because they blocked this amendment.”

About two thirds of Burma’s Union legislature voted in favor of amending the nation’s charter, which was drafted by the military in 2008, but that wasn’t enough to exceed the 75-plus percent required to approve certain amendments. One of the amendments included in the bill, ironically, was reducing that requirement to 70 percent, which would do away with what is effectively a military veto over amendments.

The country’s many ethnic armed groups, which have at various times been warring with government for more than half a decade, are unanimous in their desire to change the charter, some warning that they will not sign onto a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) until it is reformed.

Charter change is central to achieving the peace accord—if achieved before elections set for November—would be the crown jewel of President Thein Sein’s administration. That’s because ethnic groups will now allow it, in its current form, to underpin political dialogue that will commence within 60 days of signing a ceasefire. Ethnic leaders worry that if the military won’t back changes now, they won’t back them later, either.

“If we look at the current situation of blocking the amendments now, they may disagree on amending it when we have the political dialogue,” Nai Hong Sar said, warning that “if they don’t, there will be no more peace.”

Other voices were less forceful on the issue, betraying that they had already become a bit more cynical about the military’s commitment to peace and reform. Sai Hla, secretary general of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS-SSA-S), said he wasn’t at all surprised by Thursday’s vote.

“We do not have high expectations about amending the Constitution, because we know that [the Burma Army] wrote it so we couldn’t change it,” said Sai Hla, whose group is one of only a handful of non-state armies that are not involved in Union-level ceasefire talks.

“But it’s good to see the Tatmadaw [Burma Armed Forces] showing very clearly that they do not want reform. We cannot fight within the rule of law no matter how many ethnic lawmakers we have in Parliament,” he added.

A patron of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) and member of the NCCT, Khun Okkar took a similar stance. He said that while many people once believed that constitutional reform would be possible if ethnic parties had a foothold in the legislature, his group has always been skeptical.

“Many, including [opposition leader Aung San] Suu Kyi, thought the Constitution could be changed by Parliament,” he said, “but for us, we already know that it would not work. Now this proves they cannot do it.”