Minority Groups Weigh in on Having Chief Ministers Elected, Not Appointed

By The Irrawaddy 4 March 2019

Nearly three years into its administration, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has taken steps to honor its campaign promise to amend the military-drafted Constitution. Parliament formed a joint committee to start drafting amendments last month.

The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has since submitted a proposal to amend Section 261 of the Constitution. If approved, regional legislatures will be able to elect their chief ministers, who are currently appointed by the president.

While ethnic minority politicians also want to amend Section 261, they are concerned that it could end up giving even more power to the military, which is already guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the Union and regional legislatures.

Leaders of ethnic armed groups and political parties spoke to The Irrawaddy about their views on amending Section 261.


Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win

Vice Chairman, Karen National Union

Section 261 is about the appointment of region and state chief ministers. But there are sub-articles a, b, and c. It would be good if chief ministers could be selected from the regional lawmakers in the regions and states. But we have to think about the military-appointed lawmakers in the regional parliaments. We need to be careful about that. So careful assessment is needed before any action is taken, because we don’t want to amend Section 261 alone. We need to think about other basic principles.

U Ba Shein

Lower House Lawmaker, Arakan National Party

If the centralization in the 2008 Constitution is to be reduced, the rights granted to states to run a parliament are not enough. We want the chief minister of the government, which directly manages the state, to be elected by the lawmakers of the party that wins the majority (of seats) in that parliament. This will allow stronger representation of the people.

But according to our experiences after the 2010 and 2015 elections, the needs of the people and the reality on the ground didn’t match. In the 2010 elections, our party won nine of 17 townships in Rakhine State. But then the USDP, which won the least votes, appointed the chief minister.

Similarly, our party won 14 of 17 townships in the 2015 elections, and the NLD appointed its member as the Rakhine State chief minister. It is fair to say that this has caused political friction, racial conflict and a lack of trust.

For those reasons, we support the idea of having the chief minister elected by the party that wins the majority in state elections. Other provisions can be changed gradually. But for the time being this must be changed.

Sai Thiha Kyaw

Lower House Lawmaker, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy

In fact, ethnic minorities have wanted to amend Section 261 since the first Parliament (of the USDP-led government). Generally, ethnic minorities want the chief ministers to be elected by the regional parliaments. They must be elected from among the regional lawmakers. They must be people elected by the people, and then approved by the president later. This is what we want. It is important that he is accountable to local people. If they are responsible only to the president, there might be distance between them and the local people, and the representation of the people in government will be reduced.

It is difficult to talk about details for the time being. We don’t know the views of the Tatmadaw (military) and other parties. We have two representatives on the committee to draft the amendments to the Constitution. They will discuss based on the policies of our party.

Nai Hong Sar

Vice Chairman, New Mon State Party

It is more appropriate that people elect the chief minister or the leaders of their own states. We will try to get the provision amended sometime in the future. We want to switch to federalism. If state chief ministers are appointed by the president, it is not federalism, it is controlled by the president. It is not right. This is our view.

The 25 percent share of military-appointed lawmakers must be reduced. The chief ministers must be elected by the people of that state. This is how it should be. We can’t view things from one side. But my personal view is that Section 261 must be amended.

Khat Htein Nan

Chairman, Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State

It is the wish of the entire country that the Constitution be amended. The whole country is trying to get it amended. It can only be amended through Parliament. Originally the plan was to amend it through the NCA (Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement). But as the Panglong Conference has been adjourned, (the NLD) is trying to amend it through Parliament. Of course the Constitution must be amended.

The first Parliament tried but failed to amend it. So everyone is trying to amend it during the term of the second Parliament. We should welcome this, and I hope that those parts that need to be changed are finally changed.

Section 261 is about allowing the political party that wins the local election to choose the chief minister. This is a necessary requirement for transforming into a democratic federal Union. If the party that wins the majority in a local election can appoint the chief minister, it can be more accountable to the local people.

It is better to have the committee draft amendments to the Constitution than to have none. It would be good if many provisions are amended.

It would be good to amend Section 261, and related provisions should be amended too. I think it is necessary to also amend the provisions related to Section 261.

Daw Htoot May

Upper House Lawmaker, Arakan League for Democracy

Frankly speaking, ethnic minorities find it difficult to accept the basic principles of the Constitution. Section 6 (f) of the Constitution lets the Defense Services participate in the national political leadership of the country. We should start from there when changing the Constitution. Section 7 says the Union exercises genuine, disciplined, multi-party democracy. Democracy is already disciplined. So there is no need to add the adjectives “genuine” and “disciplined.”

We can’t achieve federalism, which ethnic minorities have been demanding for 70 years, by amending only Section 261. It is not the federalism we want in terms of essence and values. If local legislatures are finally allowed to elect their chief ministers, we should move forward to Appendix 2 and the rights of the people. Appendix 2 doesn’t give power to state governments; everything is handled by the Union government. This is not fair.

I wonder if those provisions will be amended all at once. Amending only that section won’t guarantee any ethnic rights in particular. Myanmar can’t achieve federalism by amending that section alone.

In my view the chief minister, if the proposed amendment is approved, will get the title but not the power to make meaningful changes for ethnic minorities.

If the Tatmadaw is not magnanimous, and unless the Tatmadaw compromises, we can do nothing to the Constitution. No matter how hard Parliament tries, the Constitution won’t be amended. So the legislative branch is the most important factor regarding real democracy and real federalism.

Because parliaments need to be built with elected lawmakers. So if they (the Tatmadaw) have goodwill for the country, and if they are willing to learn the lessons of the past 70 years, we first need to establish parliaments with 100 percent elected lawmakers.

Only when all the parliaments in the country have 100 percent elected lawmakers will the right path to amending the Constitution be at hand.

Lar Mar Lay

Lower House Lawmaker, Lisu National Development Party

I support amending Section 261 of the 2008 Constitution. The USDP submitted the proposal, and I believe all the Tatmadaw representatives will support it, and so will the lawmakers of the NLD.

But I doubt that amending Section 261 can really benefit ethnic minorities. There are ethnic parties in the states, but it is quite difficult for them to win, like the Arakan (National) Party in its state. So I am concerned that the amendment won’t bring about real benefits.

Kham Khant Htan

Lower House Lawmaker, Zomi Congress for Democracy

The country can’t become a federal democratic Union by changing only Section 261. But the centralization of the administrative system will change a bit. Other things will not change.

Many provisions in the Constitution need to be changed. First, changes must be made so that the country can transform into a federal Union. Related by-laws can be adopted later. But this can’t be done immediately.

Right now Section 261 allows a centralized system. Not only chief ministers but also ministers are appointed to region and state governments. Our state, Chin, has experienced this problem. So I believe things will be somewhat different if chief ministers are elected by lawmakers.