Concerns Raised over Last Minute Defense Council Bill

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 29 December 2015

RANGOON — Critics claim a new bill clarifying the role of the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) will pave the way for the military to exercise more power over civilian lawmakers, based on provisions that reduce the president’s clout in the council.

The National Defense and Security Council bill was distributed to Upper House lawmakers in Naypyidaw last week. The draft has so far not been made public, but could potentially be tabled in parliament before election winners take their seats at the end of January, despite a senior official telling The Irrawaddy that the bill had not yet been scheduled for discussion.

“It’s not a proposed bill yet. We just delivered them for lawmakers to study,” he said.

Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution enshrines an 11-member council serving as an executive body to make policy on certain military and security issues. The NDSC can implement conscription policies, agree to amnesties at the request of the president and request the president to declare a nationwide state of emergency. Under latter, the normal executive, judicial and legislative functions of the government are suspended and transferred to the commander-in-chief and elections can be postponed for up to 12 months.

With six members, the military already has a majority on the council, which includes the president, the two vice-presidents (one of which is chosen by the Union Parliament’s military bloc), both speakers of Union Parliament, the commander-in-chief and deputy commander of the Burma Armed Forces, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the military-appointed ministers of Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defense.

The nine-page bill presented to lawmakers last week, seen by The Irrawaddy, elaborates the NDSC’s responsibilities and procedures in six chapters.

Article 14 of the bill gives the president no right to vote on council matters, except to cast a deciding vote in the event of a deadlock. The same article also says that the council must strive to reach a consensus in its decisions, and to accept a majority vote if a unanimous resolution cannot be reached.

Khin Zaw Win, founding director of the Tampadipa Institute think tank, said the bill strengthens the military’s hand in dealing with civilian politicians, at a time when the National League for Democracy (NLD) is preparing to form the next government after its emphatic election win in March.

“It’s unnatural that the head of state is not allowed to vote. For defense and security issues, the president is not supposed to be in the middle,” he said. “It sounds they would like to limit the power of the new president while the army wants to have a dominant role.”

Questions have been raised as to why the bill has come into consideration only now, more than four and a half years before the council was established with the appointment of outgoing President Thein Sein.

“The current president and speakers came from the military and the military-backed ruling party,” said Khin Zaw Win. “In the near future, there will be outsiders. They have done this in a hurry as there will soon be new council members who are not from their side.”

It is unclear whether the bill will be considered in the current session of parliament, the last before the NLD takes a majority in both chambers. Myat Nyana Soe, a current NLD lawmaker in the Upper House, told the Irrawaddy he considered it very unlikely that the bill would be approved before the end of January.

“So far it is not a proposed bill. Even if it has been submitted to the parliament, we will have to discuss first whether it deserves any debate. As the parliament is going to close soon, I doubt the draft will be approved in this term,” he said.

Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said that new NLD lawmakers would have to consider what amendments would be possible for the bill when the matter was raised in the next parliament.