Doubts, Warnings After Speaker Nixes 2015 Charter Change

By Yen Saning 19 November 2014

RANGOON — In the wake of parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann’s declaration on Tuesday that constitutional changes would have to wait until after a new government is sworn in in 2016, lawmakers this week are questioning Naypyidaw’s reformist credentials anew.

“It’s like saying clearly that there is no situation in which the 2008 Constitution will be amended,” said Saw Than Myint, deputy chairman of the Federal Union Party.

As constitutional reform discussions continue in Parliament this week, Lower House lawmaker Khine Mg Ye said there was little chance to change articles that democratic forces have been campaigning against for years. The reason, he said, was military representatives’ intransigence. In particular, holding back proponents of reform is military representatives’ opposition to Article 436, a key clause that gives the military an effective veto over amendments to most of the Constitution.

“It’s almost impossible to amend Article 436 without the acquiescence of a single military representative,” Khine Mg Ye said, calling on the highest reaches of the military establishment to lend their support for change.

“Since all the military representatives, being unified, listen to orders from higher officials, it’s impossible to amend the Constitution with involvement of the commander-in-chief [Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing].”

Khine Mg Ye noted that constitutional reform was an important step in moving the country toward a genuinely civilian government.

In comments posted to the Facebook account of her National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi reacted less shrilly to the Shwe Mann announcement.

“He [Shwe Mann] is talking about ‘process.’ This will be what the process looks like,” she said. “Let’s say it is decided to amend Article 436: Only after it is decided to amend Article 436 can some other [provisions] be amended. … According to the process, it must be done like this.”

She also said constitutional reform was necessary to complete the country’s democratic transition.

“The role that the 2008 Constitution has given to the military is not in line with democratic norms,” said Suu Kyi, whose NLD has spearheaded a campaign to amend Article 436. A separate constitutional clause, Article 59(f), currently bars the NLD chairwoman from the presidency because her late husband and two sons are foreign nationals.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Shwe Mann said the need to maintain administrative continuity was the reason that the enactment of constitutional reform would have to wait until 2016, subject to the results of a national referendum in May of next year.

But postponing amendments to the charter could also deal a blow to efforts between the government and ethnic armed rebel groups to achieve a lasting peace after decades of civil war, according to Mya Aye of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.

“If a few amendments are not made to this Constitution, there will be more doubts about how it will be possible to build a democratic federal union, which the ethnic [minorities] are expecting. This is the immediate impact,” he said.

Saw Than Myint questioned whether Shwe Mann’s mentality would lead to political paralysis in Parliament.

“The Parliament must do their job [legislating],” he said. “No one knows who is going to be elected to the next Parliament. … We still have time. Does this mean the Parliament is not going to do anything?”

Additional reporting by The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Kha.