Why Does the Myanmar Military Rebuff the Work of the Constitutional Amendment Committee?

By San Yamin Aung 30 December 2019

YANGON—They say they are not opposed to amending Myanmar’s undemocratic Constitution. However, rather than collaborating with the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ethnic parties on charter reform, lawmakers from the military and its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have submitted their own amendment proposals, claiming that the way the NLD and the others are going about charter change is unconstitutional.

It all started with a proposal from the NLD, which led to the formation by the Union Parliament of the Constitutional Amendment Committee. Tasked with democratizing the military-drafted charter, at the time it was established in February it comprised 45 members from 14 political parties, independent representatives and members of the military bloc in Parliament.

Throughout the year, the debate over the constitutional reform process has kept the chamber of Myanmar’s Union Parliament in Naypyitaw buzzing with arguments from the committee’s supporters on one side, and the military and USDP lawmakers on the other.

At times, the parliamentary confrontation has been intense, with lawmakers shouting at each other, and military MPs loudly protesting the Speaker’s decisions. During debates on whether the military and USDP’s amendment proposals should be reviewed by the Constitutional Amendment Committee, the Speaker had to rebuke lawmakers and issue a warnings over their abusive comments.

The committee is currently drafting a constitutional amendment bill after reviewing the entire charter and compiling amendment proposals from various parties.

The military and its ally the USDP have rejected the committee and its work as “breaching the Charter”, and have even warned that its activities could destabilize the country—despite the fact that it was formed according to the same procedures as an earlier charter-amendment committee under the previous USDP-led government. The earlier committee’s work did not lead to any significant changes to the charter.

Now, it’s worth asking the question, “Why did the military and its ally submit their own proposals in parallel to the committee’s work, rather than working with it?”

Before trying to answer, it would be helpful to know what the army’s proposals are.

Following the formation of the committee in February, the military and its ally jointly submitted a single amendment, to the Constitution’s Article 261. The amendment would see state and regional chief ministers elected by local legislatures rather than appointed by the President. They claimed the proposal would promote ethnic rights.

But it has raised concerns among many ethnic politicians who fear it would give even more power to the military, which is already guaranteed one quarter of seats in the Union and regional legislatures under the Constitution.

“If chief ministers are elected by the respective parliaments, 25 percent of military-appointed lawmakers who [currently do not] have any say in appointing chief ministers will have that right, as they will be involved in electing chief ministers,” Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) general secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin told The Irrawaddy in March.

If Article 261 is amended, related articles throughout the Constitution will also need to be reviewed for changes. To avoid conflicts in the Constitution, a majority of lawmakers voted to have the amendment proposed by the military and USDP reviewed by the Charter Amendment Committee.

After their first attempt to block the committee’s scrutiny of the proposal failed, the military submitted two more constitutional amendment bills of its own, and another two jointly with the USDP lawmakers, one after another.

Among the suggested changes, they seek to limit the president’s executive power in states and regions; give broader powers to the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), including the power to call for the dissolution of Parliament; and add a provision barring anyone who has a foreign citizen in their immediate family from becoming a Union minister or chief minister. The last one is seen as specifically targeting State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thousands gather in Mandalay on July 21 to show their solidarity with the Union Parliament’s Charter Amendment Committee and its recommendations. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

Looking at all the proposed constitutional amendments, it seems the military and USDP seek a limited number of changes designed to protect their own interests, while the NLD and ethnic parties are pushing for a raft of changes through the committee.

The NLD and ethnic parties have put forward more than 3,700 recommendations for changes to various provisions of the Constitution, by amending, adding and/or repealing provisions. The recommendations include reducing the role of the military and its commander-in-chief in politics, decentralizing state power and ensuring equality and the rule of law for all citizens.

“We formed the committee to work together for constitutional reform. They [the military representatives] took part in the committee but made no proposals or comments during the committee meetings, and submitted their own proposals [outside of the committee]. They know reason,” said NLD lawmaker U Aung Kyi Nyunt, who submitted the original proposal to form the Constitutional Amendment Committee.

He added that the military and its ally had created some problems for the committee by submitting bills in parallel with its own.

The committee’s recommendations include hundreds of proposed changes to the basic principles of the Constitution. Some are directly related to the military, including provisions that enable it to take a national political leadership role and give it the right to independently administer and adjudicate on all affairs relating to the armed forces, as opposed to placing them under civilian control.

The military has warned that it will not accept any amendments that harm the essence of the Constitution or any of the 48 basic principles of the Union stated in the charter’s Chapter 1.

Myanmar’s Constitution is said to be the most rigid in the world, as it requires military approval to be amended, even if all the elected representatives in Parliament are in favor.

Article 436 requires approval from more than 75 percent of total lawmakers in Parliament—25 percent of whom are military-appointed—to pass any constitutional amendment, giving the military de facto veto power over any proposed change.

Unlike the military and USDP proposals, the committee’s bill, which is expected to be submitted to Parliament early next year, is likely to include changes to the most unpopular provisions that give the military special powers and privileges—the very changes the military is not yet willing to accept.

“Without military approval, we can go nowhere. Despite the current efforts pushing for constitutional reform, I expect only a few changes, not involving the crucial provisions that are important to building a democratic federal Union, will be able to pass before the current parliamentary term ends,” said Ko Mya Aye, a pro-democracy activist and member of the Federal Democratic Force.