Military MPs Boycott as Lower House Passes ‘State Counselor’ Bill

By Tin Htet Paing 6 April 2016

RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House of Parliament approved the so-called “State Counselor” bill on Tuesday without any amendments to the legislation as passed by the Upper House, scoring support from a majority of lawmakers in the NLD-dominated legislature, despite aggressive pushback from the military bloc.

The legislation will create a powerful position for National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, granting her a broad consultative mandate that spans Parliament, the executive branch and actors outside of government.

It passed the Upper House last week but during a Lower House legislative session on Tuesday, four lawmakers—three military MPs and one lawmaker from the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—made 13 recommendations, highlighting specific amendments to the proposed bill.

While collecting secret votes from lawmakers on whether to approve each article of the bill, as passed by the Upper House, or consider further amendments, military lawmakers boycotted the proceedings by refusing to cast ballots.

Military lawmaker Brig-Gen Maung Maung participated in discussion of the bill and afterwards told media that the military MPs had refused to vote because the NLD-dominated legislature’s behavior amounted to “democratic bullying.”

According to Article 95(a) of the 2008 Constitution, both chambers’ approval of a bill is equivalent to Union Parliament passage. The bill now goes to NLD President Htin Kyaw for his signature, at which point it will become law.

Maung Maung, a member of the Lower House Bill Committee, expressed his concern, stating that it was important for Parliament to respect the Constitution, and that the military’s opposition to the bill was not due to political nor personal bias.

He called for replacing the word “State” in the title of the bill with “President,” explained that a law should not allow an individual to possess both legislative and executive powers, arguing that this would contravene the Constitution, and stressing the importance of separation of powers. He said the military bloc would not collaborate in the voting process for the bill if Parliament refused to discuss the military lawmakers’ recommendations.

“We will not participate in the vote if Parliament acts according to the ballot results,” he said, in apparent protest of democratic norms.

He also called for amending the term “Federal Union,” which the bill used to describe the nation, to “Union Country,” because the word federal is not stated in the 2008 military-drafted Constitution. The request put on display the sensitivity surrounding the idea of a federal system of government, a constitutional reform that the NLD supports but which military leaders have sent mixed signals on.

Military lawmakers Col. Aung Thiha and Tun Myat Shwe recommended not including the specific name or party of an individual, and to amend the description of the post to “chairperson of the election-winning party,” a change to Article 4 of the bill.

USDP lawmaker Thein Tun said a law should not be created for a single term, calling to cut the last chapter of the bill. The Bill Committee, however, has argued that the legislation was drafted based on the current political context—in which Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency—and that the last chapter should remain for that reason.

Lower House Bill Committee member Wai Hlaing Tun, responding to the opposition’s recommendations, said the bill would not impact the three branches of the State and that the title of the bill would not be amended. He also said the position was created specifically for Suu Kyi and that the bill should thus mention her by name.

“The bill was drafted for the popular leader [Suu Kyi], and not intended for other people,” he said.

As Lower House Speaker Win Myint announced on Tuesday that the chamber had approved the “State Counselor” bill as passed by the Upper House, the entire military bloc—a constitutionally enshrined 25 percent of the legislature—stood up to express their disapproval.