Does Myanmar Coup Leader Have Ulterior Motive for Renovating 2008 Constitution Site?

By The Irrawaddy 21 July 2022

The junta-run Ministry of Construction is hastily renovating the Yangon building where the 2008 army-drafted constitution was written, after junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing last month described the location as being of historical significance to Myanmar.

The coup leader visited the building in Nyaungnabin Village in Yangon’s Hlegu Township on June 8 and called for the site to be properly maintained and preserved for posterity.

Minister of Construction U Shwe Lay has since visited the site at least twice, while his deputy U Win Pe has been closely supervising the renovation process, driving to Nyaungnabin every four days and overseeing details.

However, there are likely more pressing reasons for the preservation of the site than posterity. With the military regime facing nationwide armed resistance prompted by last year’s coup, the hasty renovation of the site – which was built to host the National Convention to draft the 2008 Constitution – may be more to do with the fact that the clock is ticking for Min Aung Hlaing.

Min Aung Hlaing visits the main hall where the national convention was held to draft the 2008 Constitution on June 8, 2022.

Having seized power under the cover of the 2008 Constitution, the junta chief is only allowed to govern for two years under a state of emergency. Even though Min Aung Hlaing has promised an election in August 2023, it is unlikely that his military will be able to subdue the resistance – which now numbers nearly 100,000 fighters in People’s Defense Forces – to the regime by then.

That leaves Min Aung Hlaing with two options. He can have the 2008 constitution amended and then hold the election or he can cancel the election, citing instability in the country and have a new constitution drafted to maintain his grip on power for the rest of his life.

It is not clear how Min Aung Hlaing will have the constitution amended, as there has been no parliament since the coup. But the regime can still arrange a meeting to discuss what to amend, and the venue in Nyaungnabin where the 2008 constitution was drafted can be used for that purpose, said observers.

The buildings in Nyaungnabin are now in ruins, but they were once busy with more than 1,000 representatives, who rubber-stamped the then regime’s proposed provisions when Myanmar’s third constitution was put together at the National Convention between 2004 and 2007.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime enacted a law known as the SPDC Law No. 5/96 which threatened critics of the provisions discussed at the convention with five to 20 years in prison.

As the provisions were predetermined by then military dictator Senior General Than Shwe and a few other generals, the 1,000 representatives spent their days at the convention hall and their evenings at beer stations and karaoke lounges set up for them in the compound by the regime. The convention hall is also close to the Mingaladon military base.

A front page news story in the then regime-controlled Myanma Alin newspaper about the start of the National Convention at Nyaungnabin in 2007.

The sham convention was chaired by Lieutenant General Thein Sein, then Secretary-2 of the SPDC and later the first president of Myanmar under the 2008 constitution.

Many believe Min Aung Hlaing will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and hold sham meetings with the regime’s puppets at Nyaungnabin. The junta is planning to switch from a first-past-the-post electoral system to proportional representation (PR) to ensure that major parties do not win a majority of seats, as the National League for Democracy did in the 2015 and 2020 elections.

As the seats will be shared among political parties under the PR system, the Myanmar military, which is already guaranteed 25 per cent of seats under the 2008 constitution, will be able to take official control of the country’s politics. It will be interesting to see if the junta will hold meetings at Nyaungnabin to discuss the switch to PR.

It is also possible that the regime may amend the constitution to increase the number of parliamentary seats guaranteed for the military. Min Aung Hlaing took it for granted in the 2020 general election that the presidency would be his as he expected the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and its allies to secure at least 26 per cent of the seats up for grabs. But his calculation was wrong. So to make sure he gets the presidency at the next election, he may well keep more seats for the military, something else that may be discussed at the renovated Nyaungnabin site.

The junta may also add new provisions to the constitution in favor of the military, citing national defense as a justification. Min Aung Hlaing may also add a provision similar to Section 445 of the 2008 Constitution, which barred the SPDC regime members from being prosecuted for actions done as part of their duties. Min Aung Hlaing and the military regime have already committed atrocities that have killed over 2,000 innocent civilians and displaced over a million people.

“There is nothing I dare not do,” Min Aung Hlaing said before the November 2020 general election. Since then, he has seized power in a coup, ordered his troops to shoot civilians, burn them alive, torch their homes and conduct air and artillery strikes on villages and residential areas of towns. At a July 1 press conference, junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun, who defends the regime with his lips, said his boss went to Nyaungnabin only to ensure the historic building is maintained. The coming months will reveal if that is true.