How Does the NLD’s Push to Amend Myanmar’s Constitution Differ From the USDP’s?
By San Yamin Aung 14 February 2020
YANGON—The current government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), is not the first to attempt to amend the undemocratic 2008 Constitution. In 2013, its predecessor, led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), gave it a try. But the USDP’s two-year attempt—widely viewed as lacking the will for genuine reform—ultimately proved fruitless, failing to amend even a single article of the Constitution.
Since it was launched early last year, the NLD’s push for constitutional reform has faced strong resistance from unelected military lawmakers and their allies in the USDP.
Despite strong public support for charter change, the success of the NLD’s effort is far from guaranteed. The main hurdle for constitutional reform is the effective veto wielded by the military, for which the Constitution reserves 25 percent of Parliament seats. Under Article 436, proposed changes to the charter require the support of more than 75 percent of lawmakers, meaning no change is possible without military approval.
Let’s look at the differences between the USDP and the NLD’s approaches to charter change.
On July 25, 2013, the then-ruling USDP established a joint committee with 109 members from all parties in Parliament to examine the country’s Constitution and consider changes to it.
The NLD didn’t oppose the formation of the committee proposed by USDP vice chair and former general Thura Aye Myint.
On Feb. 21, 2019, the NLD formed a 45-member joint committee with proportional representation of members of Parliament, and started reviewing the entire Charter for possible amendments. U Tun Tun Hein, the deputy speaker of the Union Parliament and an NLD lawmaker, said the party reduced the number of committee members believing that having too many members on the committee had been an impediment to the USDP’s charter amendment efforts.
The USDP lawmakers and military appointees rejected the NLD-proposed committee and all of its activities as unconstitutional, and even warned that such “unlawful” activities could destabilize the country.
44,221 Recommendations vs. 3,765 Recommendations
On Jan. 31, 2014, the USDP’s joint committee submitted a report on its findings to the Parliament that included a total of 44,221 recommended changes to provisions of the Constitution, collected from both inside and outside of Parliament.
On July 15, 2019, the NLD’s joint committee put forward to Parliament a total of 3,765 recommendations collected from more than a dozen political parties represented on the committee.
The USDP and military lawmakers rejected the recommendations and criticized the NLD and ethnic parties for attempting to change the entire charter, which it said could harm the nation.
USDP vs. NLD: Submission of Amendment Proposal
-The USDP formed an additional 31-member committee for implementation.
-It submitted a package of two constitutional amendment bills on June 10, 2015, nearly two years after the amendment process was launched.
-In the bills, the party proposed 34 amendments to the Constitution’s articles, and 54 to its additional schedules.
The USDP’s bills were signed by 43.52 percent of lawmakers, including members of the opposition NLD.
– The NLD didn’t form an additional committee.
– It submitted a package of two constitutional amendment bills on Jan. 27, 2020, nearly one year after the amendment process was launched.
– The party proposed 114 amendments to the Constitution’s articles in the amendment bills.
The NLD’s bills were signed by more than 50 percent of parliamentarians. Neither the USDP nor the military supported the bills.
USDP’s Failure: No Major Constitutional Change
Of the USDP’s proposed changes to the Constitution’s articles, only one received approval from more than 75 percent of lawmakers. This would simply have changed the word “military” to “defense” in a clause in Article 59(d) stipulating that a president must be well acquainted with the “political, administrative, economic and military affairs” of the Union.
But as Article 59 is one of the provisions covered by Article 436(a), requiring approval of more than 75 percent of Parliament and more than 50 percent of voters in a referendum in order to pass, the amendment was not approved.
The Union Election Commission estimated it would cost more than 4.72 billion kyats (about US$4.3 million at the time) to hold a referendum for that single amendment, so approval of the change was put on hold.
Only proposed amendments to the Constitution’s additional schedules were approved. These related to management of development projects and investments in states, regions and self-administered regions.
What Is the Main Aim of the NLD’s Proposals?
Among the 114 proposed amendments submitted to Parliament, the NLD has prioritized two in particular.
The first would reduce the proportion of seats in Parliament reserved for the military. The NLD suggests gradually reducing the military’s share of seats from 25 percent to 15 percent after the 2020 election, 10 percent after 2025 and 5 percent after 2030.
The second would remove the military’s effective veto over any proposed amendment to the Constitution.
The NLD proposes changing the requirement for approving a charter amendment from more than 75 percent of Parliament to “two-thirds of elected representatives,” excluding the military appointees.
If one of the above two proposals is accepted, it will be enough to begin the process of democratizing and demilitarizing the Constitution, as the military would be deprived of its ability to block constitutional reform.
It is expected that lawmakers will start discussing the NLD’s proposals next week. Let’s wait and see how far the second attempt to amend the Constitution in Parliament gets.