Mixed Response as Charter Reform Bill Goes to Parliament

By Nyein Nyein 11 June 2015

A constitutional amendment bill submitted to Parliament proposes granting greater political power to regional legislatures and would reduce the threshold of votes needed to make further changes to the charter, but Burma’s main opposition party says the legislation is not reflective of public support for broader reform.

The bill, submitted by lawmaker Thein Zaw of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) on Wednesday, comes a week after President Thein Sein pledged to amend two sections of the Constitution pertaining to power and resource-sharing between state and Union-level governments.

The bill has been under the review of Parliament’s Joint Bill Committee.

Its proposals include reducing, from more than 75 percent to at least 70 percent, the number of votes needed to change most parts of the Constitution; requiring that presidential candidates be elected lawmakers; and shifting the power to appoint state and divisional chief ministers from the president to regional legislatures.

The proposed lowering of the amendment threshold, Article 436, is significant because at present, a constitutionally guaranteed parliamentary bloc of 25 percent military appointees gives them an effective veto over changes to the charter.

The bill also suggests amending the frequently criticized provision that bars Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, though she would remain ineligible for the post despite the change. The proposed amendment to Article 59(f) would remove a ban for those whose children’s spouses are foreigners, but a prohibition on having given birth to children who are foreign nationals would remain in place. Suu Kyi has two British sons.

The amendment bill, which required the support of at least 20 percent of lawmakers in order to go before Parliament, was published in state-run newspapers on Thursday.

A change to Article 60(c), regarding the appointment of Burma’s three vice presidents (one of whom is ultimately elected president), would require that candidates are selected from the Union Parliament. Currently, the vice presidents do not need to have been elected to the legislature.

Another clause on the qualifications for president and vice presidents, Article 59(d), was also amended, removing “military” affairs from the list of matters for which candidates must be “well-acquainted,” and replacing it with “defense” affairs.

The bill contains changes to some of the constitutional provisions that the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic political parties have sought, but a senior NLD leader said the proposals did not go far enough.

Tun Tun Hein, a central committee member of the NLD who also led a campaign to garner public support for constitutional reform last year, told The Irrawaddy that the proposed changes were inadequate, with the NLD having suggested amendments to 168 clauses in total.

“Amendments might be made to the Constitution, but many important clauses would be left out [of consideration for changes], so it can be said that nothing concrete will have been amended,” he said.

Political commentator Yan Myo Thein said that regardless, it wouldn’t matter much unless the bill’s advocates managed to convince some of the members of Parliament appointed by the military to support the changes.

“It will be difficult to get the military appointees’ support on the bill, which proposes to lessen their role [in politics],” he said, while adding that there was a chance of success “if the ruling USDP leaders, who are ex-generals, could persuade them to do so.”

Dr. Aye Maung, an ethnic Arakanese lawmaker in the Upper House and a member of Parliament’s Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee, said he was confident the charter changes would be approved.

In an election season, he said, lawmakers running for re-election would be eager to support changes to the widely unpopular military-drafted Constitution.

Aye Maung, who is also the representative for ethnic minorities in six-party talks on constitutional reform, said that high-level forum could serve to break any parliamentary impasse that might arise.

“If there are setbacks, the six-party talks would have to be called on to resolve the issue,” he said.

As head of the Arakan National Party, Aye Maung has been preparing to contest in the upcoming general election in Arakan State’s Man Aung Township constituency.

This year he plans to shift his candidacy to the state parliament, where he is gambling on his party performing well in November’s election and successfully changing Article 261—on appointment of chief ministers—allowing him to potentially be elected to the post.

Aye Maung, who is an advocate for devolving power to Burma’s regional governments, said ethnic political parties are more interested in state politics than having a strong voice at the Union level.

If more than 75 percent of lawmakers approve the bill, it would then go to a national referendum, requiring over 50 percent of the vote nationwide.

Asked about his view on the proposed change to Article 59(f), the NLD’s Tun Tun Hein said: “In my own opinion, the essence of clause 59[f] has not changed.”