The Irrawaddy

A Tale of 3 Constitutions

A copy of The Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008). / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

YANGON — Since the country’s independence from the British 70 years ago, Myanmar has had three constitutions. The current charter, The Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, was promulgated in 2008. The two others were abolished when the military took control in 1962 and 1988, respectively. Here is a brief history of the country’s three constitutions.

The Constitution of the Union of Burma (1947)

Myanmar’s first Constitution was drafted in May 1947, shortly before the country’s independence, at Jubilee Hall in Yangon. General Aung San, the father of current State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, led the 75-member drafting committee. He also briefed Parliament about the charter. The Constitution was ratified on Sept. 24, 1947, and remained in force from 1948 to 1962, when a military coup led by General Ne Win toppled the government.

The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1974)

Drafted by the Burma Socialist Program Party and ratified by referendum on Jan. 3, 1974, the charter was designed to build a socialist democratic social order and a socialist economic system via the Burmese Way to Socialism. The drafting committee was led by then-President U San Yu and had 97 members. Fourteen years later, Myanmar was among the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and among the least developed nations in the world, leading to a nationwide popular uprising in 1988 that toppled the military-backed socialist leadership in August of that year. The charter came to an end when the military seized power in September.

The Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008)

Probably the most controversial of Myanmar’s three constitutions, it expressly enshrines the military’s involvement in national politics.  After a 13-year discussion, from 1993 to 2006, the military organized a national convention in 2007 to draft a Constitution. According to a government announcement at the time, the convention was joined by more than 1,000 representatives, including delegates from various political parties and ethnic regions. But the NLD decided to boycott the pre-convention discussions in 1995, saying it was undemocratic. In October 2007, a 54-member drafting commission was formed under the leadership of Chief Justice U Aung Toe.

A nationwide referendum to ratify the charter was held on May 10, 2008. But voting was postponed to May 24 in seven townships in Irrawaddy Region and 40 townships in Yangon due to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 100,000 people a week before the scheduled referendum. The then-military regime promulgated the charter on May 29, claiming that more than 92 percent of 26 million-plus voters supported it.

Critics complain that the charter encourages the military’s involvement in politics by guaranteeing 25 percent of parliamentary seats to men in uniform. The charter also states that it can only be amended with support from more than 75 percent of lawmakers, ensuring that changes can only be made with the military’s consent. The charter describes the military as a guardian of the Constitution. Attempts by the NLD and other organizations to amend the Constitution have yet to succeed.