YANGON—Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday that the “military are not overly enthusiastic” about amending the Constitution, while insisting that charter change is necessary if Myanmar is to transition to a “complete democracy.”
This is the first time Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken publicly about the challenges facing the government’s Parliamentary push, launched in January, to amend the charter. The ultimate goal of the effort is to end the military’s involvement in politics.
The State Counselor said she plans to address the issue of the military’s opposition to charter change during her next term, should her government be returned to power in the 2020 general election.
When asked if constitutional amendment was possible before the upcoming election, she said, “That is difficult to say.”
Drafted in 2008 by the then-ruling military junta, the charter has been widely criticized as undemocratic, particularly for the 25 percent of parliamentary seats it reserves for military appointees—enough to veto any proposed amendments.
The current Constitution dictates that amendment proposals must receive the support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers to pass, meaning the government cannot amend it without the military’s cooperation.
Despite drawing strong objections from military appointees in Parliament, as well as lawmakers from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the National League for Democracy (NLD)-dominated Parliament voted in favor of forming the joint Charter Amendment Committee in February. It was the NLD’s first move to amend the Constitution since taking office in 2016.
The committee’s 45 members include representatives of 14 political parties, independents and members of the military’s 25 percent bloc in Parliament. In July, the panel submitted to Parliament more than 3,700 recommendations to amend, add or remove items from the charter.
However, military lawmakers objected to the formation of the committee from the outset, saying its establishment was unconstitutional. Military lawmakers on the committee have not contributed any recommendations, while representatives of the ethnic parties, the ruling NLD, the opposition USDP and even an independent member have all provided input on proposed charter changes. The military appointees insist that all of the committee’s procedures are in “violation of the Constitution.”
Amending the Constitution has been one of the NLD’s priorities since before the 2015 election, and the party has publicly stated its belief that constitutional amendment is essential to building a democratic country.
However, some opposition parties have dismissed the NLD’s push for charter change as little more than a pre-election ploy to woo voters.
The State Counselor rejected this accusation, telling Nikkei that the NLD is not pinning its hopes for next year’s election on passing constitutional amendments within the next year.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is currently in Japan after attending the enthronement ceremony for Emperor Naruhito on Tuesday. She met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday to discuss allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine State, as well as economic issues and other affairs.
During her visit, the State Counselor delivered the opening speech at the 2nd Myanmar Investment Conference organized by the Japan External Trade Organization, under the title “Accelerated Steps Toward Stronger Business Relationship Between Myanmar and Japan.”
In a 30-minute interview with Nikkei Asian Review in Tokyo, she described the Myanmar military’s 2017 crackdown against the Muslim Rohingya minority as a response to a “terrorist attack.”
She expressed disappointment that the international community has paid so little attention to the terrorist threat in Rakhine. However, she said her government understands the international community’s concerns over human rights violations there.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape military operations that the UN has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The Myanmar military denies the allegations, insisting the crackdown was a response to coordinated attacks on security posts in Rakhine State by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
In July last year, the Myanmar government formed the Independent Commission of Enquiry for Rakhine to investigate allegations of human rights violations and related issues. The body includes two international experts—former Japanese Ambassador to the UN Kenzo Oshima and Philippine diplomat Rosario Manalo.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement in November 2017, but implementation has failed repeatedly and each side blames the other for the delay. Citing resistance to repatriation from the Rohingya who fear for their safety, rights groups have also warned that without legal protections such as citizenship, Rohingya refugees will continue to face persecution in Myanmar.
The State Counselor said the Rakhine issue is very much an economic and social issue, and not a religious one, as some people have tried to make it out to be.
Despite the international criticism, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in May hosted the Rakhine Investment Forum. It invited both domestic and foreign investors to the event, saying that economic development would bring stability to the state.
Note: This story was edited on Nov. 4, 2019 to clarify State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments on the likelihood of constitutional amendment occurring before next year’s election.