Green Light for Charter Amendment Committee Despite Objections

By Nyein Nyein 19 February 2019

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—The Union Parliament on Tuesday voted in favor of the formation of a joint constitutional amendment committee, despite objections from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and military appointees.

Three hundred and eighty-nine votes were cast in favor of establishing the committee, a move initiated by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, while 192 votes against and three neutral votes were submitted. The Parliament is made up of 385 NLD lawmakers (59 percent); 166 military appointees (25 percent) and 41 USDP lawmakers (5 %). The remaining 11 percent are representatives from 12 other parties, including the ethnic parties, and independent lawmakers.

The committee will review the 2008 Constitution for undemocratic principles, report their findings to the Parliament and draft an amendment bill based on their findings.

Efforts in amending the charter have been widely discussed since January when NLD lawmaker U Aung Kyi Nyunt raised it in Parliament as an urgent motion, pressing for the committee urgently. In the first week of February, Parliament approved the proposal with a majority of votes and meetings between party representatives were held on Feb. 8 and 15.

USDP and military Parliament members rejected the formation of the committee from the outset, saying it is not in accordance with the Constitution. They refused to submit nominees for the proposed 45-member joint committee which is to be led by Deputy Union Parliament Speaker Tun Tun Hein.

Committee seats were to be allocated in proportion to the breakdown in representative numbers in Parliament, U Tun Tun Hein, deputy speaker of the Union Parliament said during Tuesday’s parliamentary session.

The committee is to be made up of 18 NLD lawmakers; eight military appointees; two each from the USDP, Arakan National Party (ANP) and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD); and one representative each from ten other ethnic political parties in Parliament; one independent lawmaker and the upper house deputy speaker in the charter amendment Joint Committee.

Though this is not exactly in proportion to their respective representation in Parliament, U Tun Tun Hein said it gives “a chance for the minority political parties, regardless of their size, to be able to take part in the charter amendment process, to give their input in drafting the charter amendment bill like the other bigger parties.”

He explained that charter amendment efforts under the previous government were impeded by having too many representatives in the 109-member Constitutional Review Committee and too few representatives in the additional 31-member Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee. Thus, he said, “there were delays in task implementation.”

He said it took 22 months for the previous Constitutional Review Committee to execute all the charter-amending tasks – from submitting the motion to holding a referendum.

U Tun Tun Hein said they “will not try to amend the Constitution using means of short-cuts. Instead of [working with] the consent of one party or one group, we will try to amend the Constitution with public consent and through cooperation.”

The fourteen political parties currently represented in Parliament are the ruling NLD, USDP, ANP, SNLD, the Wa Democratic Party, the Pa-O National Organization, the Zomi Democracy Party, the Ta’ang National Party, the Kokang Democracy and Unity Party, the Mon National Party, the National United Democratic Party, the National Unity Party, the Kachin State Democracy Party and the Lisu National Development Party.

Brig-Gen Maung Maung, leading military appointee in Parliament told reporters after the Tuesday session in Naypyitaw that if amendments were to be made to the charter, they should not lose track of the original essence of the Constitution.

The military appointee reiterated the Commander-in-Chief Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s words that they already consented to amending the Constitution, but accused the NLD of moving on with its proposal without considering the Military’s request to adjust their representation in the committee.

Brig-Gen Maung Maung added, “we raised [this issue] because the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) must have its 25 percent quota in the constitutional amendment [body]”, reiterating that it is the military’s prime responsibility to defend the Constitution.

U Pe Than, a lawmaker from the Arakan National Party, told The Irrawaddy over the phone on Tuesday that unless the military and NLD can come to an agreement, attempts to amend the charter would not work.

“As I understand, the military and opposition parties are not objecting to constitutional changes, but they are against the way the NLD initiated the formation of the committee. We also share the same thoughts: before the charter is amended, 20 percent of lawmakers must sign the bill to be submitted to the Parliament where it will then be debated by the lawmakers.”

He suggested that negotiations be held rather than seeking a majority of votes.

“The military will not accept the changes to its 25 percent [Parliament] quota, or to Article 59 (f) [which disqualifies anyone from becoming president if they have family members who are foreign nationals] or to reduce the provisions restricted under Article 436,” said U Pe Than.

He said that apart from provisions stated in Article 436 (a), the parliament may be able to amend articles in accordance with the Article 436 (b) within the remaining timeframe of the NLD government as Parliament has direct power to change those provisions. Article 436 (b) stipulates that “provisions other than those mentioned in Sub-Section (a) shall be amended only by a vote of more than seventy-five percent of all the representatives of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw [Union Parliament].”

In Article 436 (a), most of the 96 provisions stipulated are related to the military’s role in the legislature, executive and judicial sectors, limitations to the presidency and state of emergency. Not only is it necessary to receive more than 75 percent of votes in Parliament, but a nation-wide referendum must also be held to in order to pass the amendment bill.

“Regarding Article 261 [which states the president’s authority in appointing regional chief ministers], the military rejected changes under the previous government but they now agree to changing it,” said U Pe Than. “I think the NLD will also try to amend this so that our government will be more democratic.”

The ANP won a majority votes in the Rakhine State parliament in the 2015 elections, but due to the above mentioned constitutional barriers, it was not permitted to appoint its own regional chief minister. The NLD also exercises its constitutional right to appoint its own representatives as chief ministers and not to collaborate with the local party and this has caused friction between the NLD and ANP.

Also on Tuesday, the USDP submitted its own charter amendment bill to Parliament, focusing on the amendment of Article 261. The Parliament will debate the bill later, according to Speaker T Khun Myat.