Committee to Endorse Change to Threshold on Amending Constitution

By Nyein Nyein 21 May 2014

Parliamentarians from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party are leading ongoing discussions on amendments to Burma’s Constitution, and have agreed to recommend changing a key clause that could pave the way for more wide-reaching charter reform, according to a USDP lawmaker.

The 31 members of the Parliamentary Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee continued their meetings on Wednesday, their fourth day of discussions, after first convening on May 15.

“We will amend Article 436 … it has been discussed and agreed in the committee,” committee member Tin Maung Oo, a USDP lawmaker from Rangoon’s Shwe Pyi Thar Township, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

“We will submit [the proposal] to the Parliament,” he said, without elaborating on the specific changes to the Constitution, including Article 436, that would be recommended. “The final decision is on the Parliament. As parliamentarians represent the public, it will echo the public’s sentiment.”

Article 436 is an important clause of the 2008, military-backed Constitution. Under the article, amending any part of the Constitution requires the support of more than 75 percent of members of the Union Parliament, in which a quarter of seats are reserved for unelected military representatives.

The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and the prominent civil society group 88 Generation Peace and Open Society have been campaigning to have the clause amended, organizing two rallies over the weekend that brought thousands of people out in support of the effort.

“Lawmakers are considering [amendments to the Constitution] based on three principles: the public’s voices, the ethnic [minorities’] desires and benefits for them, and for the sake of the state and statesmen,” Tin Maung Oo said.

Lawmakers say discussions are being informed by public suggestions and recommendations made to the now-dissolved, 109-member parliamentary committee that was first charged with taking input on the charter and was formed in August 2013.

That committee reported to Parliament on Jan. 31, and three days later the current Parliamentary Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee was formed.

Of the latter’s 31 members, 14 are USDP representatives. The committee’s remaining seats were allotted to seven military appointees, two from the NLD, one from the National Unity Party and one from each of Parliament’s ethnic minority parties, representing Arakanese, Shan, Mon, Karen, Chin and Pa-O constituencies.

“We have discussed the basic principles, and the discussions have been going well despite having some differing opinions,” said Banyar Aung Moe, an ethnic Mon lawmaker from the All Mon Region Democracy Party.

Tin Maung Oo, an ex-colonel under the former military regime, said talks so far have included discussions on devolving governance under a federal system, long a taboo topic in Burma. “We understand ethnics have doubts about their experiences under 50 years of the Union,” he said, referring to long-standing complaints by minorities that the ethnic Burman-dominated central government has remained unresponsive or outright antagonistic toward their needs.

He said the committee would submit its final recommendations to the Union Parliament, where votes will be cast on the proposed changes. The upcoming parliamentary session is scheduled to resume next week, on May 28.

After three days of meetings, the committee had discussed articles 433, 434, 435 and 436 under the Constitution’s Section 12, as well as Section 1, titled “The Basic Principles of the Union.”

“We will continue our discussion from Article 20(c) of Section 1 today,” Tin Maung Oo said.

In addition to Article 436’s parliamentary threshold, more contentious parts of the Constitution require a majority of voters to back the change, via a national referendum. Those parts include an article guaranteeing the military’s parliamentary seats and its role in politics; Article 59(f), which bars people with foreign family members, such as NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, from becoming president; and rules on declaring a state of emergency.

Article 59(f), however, has not yet been discussed, according to Banyar Aung Moe.

The committee plans to continue its meetings this week and up until Parliament opens next week.

Win Myint, an NLD lawmaker from Pathein, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that “there is a lot to discuss [regarding the contents of the Constitution], so the discussion will not wrap up this month [before the resumption of Parliament].”

“It cannot be hurried, this kind of discussion,” added Banyar Aung Moe, saying even the wording of single sentences could involve lengthy discussions.

The committee has been charged with concluding its work six months prior to the 2015 election, the date of which has not yet been set.