President’s Pitch on Charter Reform Said to Miss the Mark

By Nyein Nyein 2 June 2015

A pledge by President Thein Sein to devolve some legislative power to state and divisional parliaments was met with skepticism on Tuesday by a prominent ethnic lawmaker and a political analyst who said a more thorough revamp of Burma’s Constitution was required.

In his monthly radio address to the nation, Thein Sein said his government was drafting a bill to amend Schedules One and Two of the Constitution’s General Provisions chapter, which lay out the legislative domains of the Union Parliament and regional legislatures.

As part of efforts to move Burma toward a more federal system, “[the government] is prioritizing the amending of Schedules One and Two of the Constitution to have equal access for the ethnics in terms of shared taxation and power-sharing and for the sake of the ethnic people in the regions/states,” Thein Sein said, according to the state-run daily Kyemon.

Schedule One and Schedule Two outline which matters of governance Union and regional legislatures are granted legislative authority over. Under the current Constitution, the Union Parliament is afforded far more power, with lawmakers in Naypyidaw given control of legislation covering 11 sectors and 123 subsectors. That compares with eight sectors and 41 subsectors over which regional parliaments are given control.

Ethnic minorities have long called for changes to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which centralizes political power and gives the president the authority to appoint the chief minister of each of Burma’s states and divisions. Another point of contention has been Article 37, which declares the Union “the ultimate owner of all lands and all natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and in the atmosphere.”

Union lawmakers are also granted the power to enact laws related to the extraction and use of natural resources, most of which are in parts of the country where ethnic minorities reside.

“The bill would be presented to the Parliament within this month, in order to amend Schedule One and Schedule Two, based on suggestions through meetings and consultation and from our [government’s] four years of experiences,” said the president.

Despite the president’s apparent support for decentralization, the news is being taken with a grain of salt, coming as it is from a government that has dragged its feet on constitutional reform despite growing calls for change.

Dr. Aye Maung, an ethnic Arakanese lawmaker in the Upper House and a member of Parliament’s Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee, said the president was ignoring the clauses that most needed to be rewritten.

“He does not encourage changing the clauses that need to be amended, such as Article 261 and Article 37, which are far more important than Schedules One and Two,” he said.

Article 261 grants the president the power to appoint regional chief ministers.

“As U Thein Sein was one of the people who drafted the 2008 Constitution, he has the responsibility to correct it,” Aye Maung said “The ethnics must be able to elect their own chief minister, not have one appointed by the president and the Union government.”

Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, said the president’s proposed changes were not likely to make ethnic minorities feel that their regional governments were more representative.

“We have to wait and see,” he said. “Unless there is change to Article 261, which requires over 75 percent of lawmakers’ votes, there is no way of having a state government that truly represents ethnics.”

Aye Maung, who is also ethnic minorities’ voice in high-level six-party talks on constitutional reform, called for “no more lies” on the issue from the president.

“He [Thein Sein] is simply exploiting it for his political ends,” he said.

The president’s monthly speech also addressed the latest in efforts to sign a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic armed groups; the release of census results last week; preparations for the upcoming general election; and the government’s humanitarian assistance to migrants found of Burma’s coast in recent weeks.

Thein Sein also said a decision setting Burma’s minimum wage was expected this month.