With Failed Myanmar Charter Reform, Military Still Controls Amnesty for Political Prisoners

By San Yamin Aung 16 March 2020

YANGON—Myanmar’s military will continue to hold the key to freeing political prisoners as the Parliament rejected a proposed charter amendment from the National League for Democracy (NLD) party that would have granted the president full power to declare amnesties.

Under Article 204 (b) of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, the president can only grant amnesties in accordance with the recommendation of the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), a powerful body effectively under military control.

The council is made up of 11 members, including the president, the two vice-presidents, both parliamentary speakers, the commander-in-chief and deputy commander-in-chief, the foreign affairs minister and the military-appointed ministers of home affairs, border affairs and defense. As one vice-president is appointed by the military, the army commands a majority on the council.

The army also controls the three powerful ministries involved, including the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the Police Force and the Prisons Department, among other state apparatuses.

The ruling NLD party sought to grant the president full authority to declare amnesties by removing the phrase “in accordance with the recommendation of the NDSC” from Article 204 (b). According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), there are currently 73 political prisoners serving prison sentences and 141 in jail facing trial.

A total of 403 lawmakers, about 62 percent of Parliament, voted to approve the proposal, while 227 others voted against it. 

National League for Democracy and military-appointed lawmakers cast their ballots in a constitutional amendment vote at the Union Parliament. / Thiha Lwin / The Irrawaddy

The proposal was among 15 proposed amendments voted on in Parliament on Monday.

The proposals included amendments, additions and repeals to the Constitution that are covered by Article 436 (b) and therefore require the support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers to pass, but do not require a popular referendum.

Other proposals rejected on Monday included a motion to remove the defense and security committees from the Lower House, Upper House and state and regional legislatures, and a motion to bar anyone who has been permitted to use state-owned land or property from being elected as a lawmaker.

Even some proposals to change wordings in the Constitution didn’t received the required support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers.

Currently, the NLD holds 59 percent of seats in Parliament, ethnic parties hold 11 percent, the Union Solidarity and Development Party holds 5 percent and the military holds a constitutionally-mandated 25 percent.

The Union Parliament began voting on constitutional amendments on March 10. So far, 70 proposals have been voted on and only two proposals have received the required support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers. The two approved proposals are changes to the written term for “disabled” and “elders” in Burmese.

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