Military Opposition to Charter Change Could Entrench Public Trust Deficit

By Lawi Weng 3 July 2015

The military’s opposition to constitutional amendments, recently shot down in Burma’s Parliament, may harm efforts to conclude a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic armed groups and could undermine trust between the government and the international community, who have closely watched the reform process under President Thein Sein.

This is the view of various lawmakers who, speaking during recent parliamentary deliberations, have said that broader reforms will not go further without the support of the Burma Army to amend parts of the military-drafted 2008 charter.

Only constitutional change will demonstrate that the military and the government are genuine about instituting a democratic, federal system in the country which provides for the full rights of all ethnic nationalities.

Many MPs, including Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members, supported amending several articles, including article 436 which states that key amendments to the charter require the support of 75 percent of the Parliament.

“Without supporting votes from [military MPs], we could not reach the 75 percent [threshold] to amend the article. We cannot amend the constitution if they keep blocking it in parliament,” said Pe Than of the Arakan National Party.

The government claims to support the establishment of a federal system, but this requires acknowledging the rights and views of ethnic people, including those ethnic parliamentarians calling for constitutional change.

The vetoing of key changes to the nation’s charter could have far-reaching ramifications for the ongoing peace process which the incumbent government is desperate to finalize before the end of its term in office.

“The leaders of ethnic armed groups will not have trust in the army or parliament anymore,” said Pe Than, adding that this waning trust could make it difficult to conclude a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

“I feel that [military lawmakers] are sitting in parliament to protect their constitution. We cannot amend their constitution unless they allow us to do it. This will only lead to [cementing] military dictatorship in this country while the democratic system fades,” he said.

This reporter believes that the Burma Army should focus on protecting the country’s security, not intervening in politics, and should set a time frame outlining their withdrawal from the political stage. There are enough challenges in reforming this country without the military flexing its muscle in parliament.

Min Oo, a National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker from Pegu Division, voiced concerns over the army’s latest legislative intervention while addressing a parliamentary session on Thursday.

“I am concerned that the image of the Tatmadaw [Burma Army] will fade if the Constitution is not amended. We have seen that the Tatmadaw has more power than other lawmakers and civil servants in the country. This is why this [article 436] should be amended,” he said.

“If the Tatmadaw wants respect from the people, it should not take more power than the people. They should demonstrate that the army and civilians have equal rights.”

Some proposed constitutional amendments do appear to enjoy at least a level of support among the ruling USDP. Speaking in parliament on Thursday, USDP lawmaker Aung Thein Lin said his party supported amending article 262, to allow elected parliamentarians in states and divisions to select their own chief ministers.

“Ethnic [nationalities] want their own people to run their region. But [at present] the president can appoint his own minister to run their regions. Our party has proposed to amend this article in order to have peace,” Aung Thein Lin said.

NLD MP Khin Mwe Lwin said amending some sections of the constitution was the only path to achieving true democracy in the country. Amendments, in turn, the MP said, could enhance trust between Burma and the international community and attract more aid and investment.

For Pe Than, the sooner the unelected military bloc of MPs exits parliament, the better.

“If they keep blocking amendments to the constitution in parliament, people will run out of patience,” he said. “They blocked all [the clauses] we tried to amend, so there is no road to reform. Our people have no trust in them.”