Nine Judges Quit in Constitution Tribunal Row

By The Irrawaddy & The Associated Presss 7 September 2012

RANGOON, Burma—All nine judges on Burma’s Constitution Tribunal abruptly resigned on Thursday after the Lower House of Parliament voted to impeach them in a standoff within the country’s nascent quasi-civilian government.

The resignations were announced by President Thein Sein’s office, state television reported on Thursday night, after two-thirds of the Lower House had voted earlier in the day for the judges’ impeachment.

The dispute has been seen as demonstrating the maturation of Burma’s democracy, as well as reflecting jockeying for power within the ruling party.

“We had more than two-third of MPs vote to impeach them in accordance with the Constitution,” said Ba Shein, a Lower House MP for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party and a member of the Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission.

He told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that Constitutional Tribunal members never showed up for hearing at the investigation board, which was formed at the end of August after the Upper House also voted for impeachment proceedings.

Earlier this week, the tribunal judges objected to who sat on the inquiry board by alleging that members had signed the petition demanding the withdrawal of the tribunal’s decisions and their resignation, according to state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar.

The dispute over the tribunal began in March but the matter gained momentum after a Rule of Law Committee, headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was formed last month. MPs object to a tribunal decision reached in March that denied parliamentary committees the status of Union-level organizations.

According to the 2008 Constitution, the nine judges are appointed by the President and the speakers of Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament—three by each.

“We found this Constitutional Tribunal cannot work in a democratic way. This is why we asked for them to withdraw even though we did not want to do it,” Pe Than, a Lower House MP for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, told The Irrawaddy.

“If they have power above Parliament, there will be no one who can control the government. We are worried that there will be no checks and balances on the government, and the government may act similar to the last the military regime,” he added.

MPs said that the Constitutional Tribunal did not want to be on the the same level as MPs as the judges did not want to be controlled by Parliament.

“We are asking them to recognize us on the same level as the Union position as we want to have the power to scrutinize their conduct,” said Pe Than.

Thein Sein recently reshuffled his cabinet in what was widely considered an effort to consolidate power after initially coming to office in March 2011. He is a former general and his government is dominated by members of the military, which had ruled the country since a 1962 coup d’etat.

However, members of his own ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party led the effort against the tribunal he appointed, and the opposition was spearheaded by his former army colleague Shwe Mann, speaker of the Lower House. Thein Sein was prime minister in the former military regime, and Shwe Mann the third-ranking member of its ruling junta.

The tribunal itself was also headed by a former military general. Lawmakers had been angered that the tribunal had not granted its committees and commissions the legal status they sought. The duties of the tribunal, whose members were nominated by the president and two speakers of Parliament, are to interpret the Constitution and rule if laws conform to it.

Shwe Mann had said the decision not to designate parliamentary bodies as state-level entities affected the ability of the lawmakers to carry out their work and harmed their reputations. Some 301 Lower House MPs, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, signed a petition to impeach the tribunal because of its alleged incompetence in discharging its duties.

Thein Sein had urged Parliament to resolve the dispute by amending the Constitution rather than impeaching the tribunal members.

The new Constitutional Tribunal will be formed during the next session of Parliament, according to MPs. However, it is not yet clear how the ongoing dispute regarding the status of parliamentary committees will be resolved.

The Irrawaddy reporters Nyein Nyein and Lawi Weng contributed to this article.