Parliament OKs Debate on Charter-Amendment Panel over Military’s Strong Objection

By The Irrawaddy 29 January 2019

YANGON—Over unanimous opposition from military representatives, Myanmar’s Parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly gave the green light to a discussion of an urgent proposal to form a joint committee on constitutional reform.

National League for Democracy (NLD) Upper House Lawmaker U Aung Kyi Nyunt, who is also a member of the party’s Central Executive Committee, submitted a proposal on Tuesday to form a joint committee comprising suitable lawmakers from the Union Parliament to work on amending the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. The charter has been widely criticized as undemocratic, particularly for its stipulation that 25 percent of the seats in Parliament be reserved for unelected military representatives.

Constitutional reform is one of the NLD-led government’s key policies, along with promoting the rule of law and ending armed conflict in the country. The proposal to form a committee is the NLD’s first official attempt to move down the path of charter amendment since taking office in 2016.

Before a secret vote was called on whether to debate the proposal, the tension between the more than 150 military lawmakers and Parliament Speaker U T Khun Myat was palpable. Military representative Brigadier-General Maung Maung complained that the formation of such a committee was not in line with established procedure, adding that lawmakers should not resort to deceit or craftiness. When the Speaker rejected his complaint, all of the military lawmakers took to their feet—their customary method of displaying their displeasure with NLD motions of which they disapprove. Their defiance prompted the Speaker to ask sarcastically, “What does it mean?”

The Speaker explained that the proposal to form a committee represented an all-inclusive approach to constitutional reform that allowed for debate.

“I will call a secret vote to learn lawmakers’ wishes as to whether the motion should be discussed, as there are those who disagree with it,” he added.

Out of 601 possible votes, the motion earned 394 “yes” votes, 17 “no” votes and three abstentions. Those who boycotted were likely military lawmakers and their allies in the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

A debate on forming the committee was scheduled for early next month. The NLD’s move to initiate discussion of charter change on Tuesday coincided with the second anniversary of the assassination of party legal adviser U Ko Ni in Yangon. The slain lawyer was known as an expert on the Constitution; his role as a leading advocate for constitutional reform is suspected to have prompted his murder.

The NLD has been pushing for constitutional amendment since 2013. In a nationwide campaign poll conducted at that time to gauge the public’s views on charter reform, 97 percent of respondents in 267 townships across the country said they wanted the Constitution changed. Any proposed charter amendment requires approval from more than 75 percent of the total lawmakers in Parliament.

Despite the overwhelming public support for reform, the NLD only managed to have a few minor articles of the Constitution changed during the previous U Thein Sein administration, as it was unable to obtain the support of the military and its allies. As a result, some major articles such as 436, which requires that proposed changes to the Constitution be supported by more than 75 percent of lawmakers, and 59 (f), which bars NLD leader and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming Union president, remain untouched.