Myanmar Parliament Indefinitely Postpones Referendum on Charter Amendments

By San Yamin Aung 21 May 2020

YANGON—Myanmar’s Union Parliament on Thursday voted to postpone a national referendum on constitutional change that was expected to cost around 15 billion kyats (US$10.44 million).

The referendum is needed to approve two minor changes to the Constitution’s Article 32(a) and 32(b), which received the required support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers in Parliament in March.

The changes would amend Burmese-language references to “disabled military officers” in two places and “elders” in one place.

The Constitution requires a nationwide referendum to change certain charter provisions covered under Article 436(a), provided they are first approved by more than 75 percent of lawmakers.

The Parliament earlier sought to hold the charter referendum concurrently with the upcoming general election this year to save on polling expenditures.

In replying to the Parliament’s request, Union Election Commission (UEC) member U Than Aung told lawmakers on Thursday that if the commission has to hold the referendum, there will be three minor changes to be approved, including one charter amendment passed by the previous Parliament under the U Thein Sein government.

That one would simply change the word “military” to “defense” in a clause in Article 59(d), which stipulates that the President must be acquainted with the “political, administrative, economic and military affairs” of the Union.

The commission would need an additional 14.646 billion kyats to hold the referendum alongside the election to cover the cost of fielding an extra three officers at each polling station around the country as well as more ballot boxes and ballot papers, the election commissioner said.

“If we have to hold it, we will, but we will need a budget of 14.646 billion kyats for that, which is still very costly, and as approving those [three] changes will not have much impact, we suggest delaying the referendum, and combining it with [referendums on] future charter reforms,” he added.

Parliament Speaker U T Khun Myat told the lawmakers the commission’s suggestion was reasonable and appropriate. The proposal to postpone the referendum passed unanimously.

From March 10-20, the Union Parliament voted on 135 proposed constitutional amendments, 114 of which were submitted by the National League for Democracy and ethnic parties, mainly seeking to reduce the special powers and privileges granted to the military under the charter.

Almost all of the charter reforms failed to pass in March, with only four minor changes receiving the required support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers. Two of those did not require approval in a referendum to take effect. They also involved language adjustments, changing a Burmese-language reference to “disabled military officers” and removing language deemed unnecessary from a charter provision on the appointment of state and regional ministers.