National CSO Forum Urges Constitutional Reform

By Htet Naing Zaw 27 February 2017

NAYPYIDAW — Leaders of civil society organizations (CSOs) called for reform of Burma’s controversial, military-drafted 2008 Constitution at the first national forum of CSOs held in administrative capital Naypyidaw on Friday and Saturday last week.

“Delegates talked about constitutional amendments needed for nation building—they talked about changing to federalism,” U Thein Min Oo, a representative from Bago Division and member of CSO Forum organizing committee, told The Irrawaddy.

The Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) headed by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gave guidelines of three topics for CSOs to discuss—humanitarian support, environmental conservation, and resource sharing in a federal context.

CSOs from Karenni State boycotted the forum, saying that the UPDJC’s guidelines were too centralized.

But forum organizers said participants discussed a wide range of subjects including resource and power sharing and self-administration.

“They also discussed land confiscation, people displaced by conflict, and, of course, armed clashes,” said forum organizer U Thwin Lin Aung. “They even talked about the economy and rice prices,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Forum organizers said discussions by CSO leaders on three topics permitted by the UPDJC would continue at later CSO forums, and discussions on other topics would be discussed at local preliminary CSO forums.

Participants also called for constitutional reform that would see the chief of the Burma Army overseen by a civilian defense ministry.

“I proposed that all ministries should be overseen by the elected government,” said U Thein Min Oo, referring to three key ministries—the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Home Affairs, and Ministry of Border Affairs—held by the Burma Army.

“We should consider such things to build a secular state,” U Thein Mein Oo told the press after the forum.

U Ra Kham, a representative of Chin State, also noted that internal peace was needed before the 2008 Constitution could be amended.

“Neither the government nor parliament have taken action to change the constitution. So, let’s change the constitution and build a federal state with the strength of CSOs,” he urged participants.

U Soe Htay, a forum organizer, said: “We can’t move through the UPDJC to rewrite the 2008 Constitution. Discussion on constitutional amendments is barred by the UPDJC. If we are not allowed to discuss it, we have to think about ways to overcome this.”

According to procedures, the agreements reached at the forum are to be submitted to the UPDJC, which will discuss and put them forward to the 21st Century Panglong peace conference.

However, the results of last week’s forum will not be submitted to the UPDJC this time, said forum organizers.

“We will try to submit the results of the next forum, which will be held in the next six months,” U Thwin Lin Aung, a forum organizer, told press after the forum.

The government seems to think that CSOs should not be involved in politics, said U Thwin Lin Aung.

“When CSO representatives discussed politics at a national level political dialogue in Tenasserim Division, they [government officials] told them it was not their business,” he said.

The 2008 Constitution provides the Burma Army 25 percent of seats in national and sub-national legislatures and affirms the army’s grip of three key ministries.

State of emergency provisions in the constitution allow the Burma Army chief to assume power in times of crisis.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), while it was still in opposition, launched nationwide campaigns calling for constitutional amendment—one of the party’s campaign promises for the 2015 election was to change the 2008 Constitution.

The forum was attended by 540 representatives from over 300 CSOs across the country.