Myanmar’s parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann said Tuesday that the country’s constitution, which includes a clause barring opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, can only be amended after next year’s elections.
His announcement was challenged by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, which said he had no authority to make the decision.
Shwe Mann, head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and who is vying for the presidency, also told a press conference that a nationwide referendum on constitutional amendments would be held in May before the late 2015 polls.
He said the 2008 constitution—written by Myanmar’s former military regime—cannot be amended in the current term, and that the 2015 general elections will be based on the present charter.
Amending the constitution now will result in a major shakeup of the administrative and other systems in the country before elections just a year away, he said.
“If amendments [were] made in … the present term [and] were carried out, all of the administrative and other mechanisms already in place would have to be changed—that cannot happen at all,” he told reporters in the capital Naypyidaw.
“That is why in 2015 the elections will be held and when the new [parliament] commences with the newly-elected representatives they will determine which amendments in the constitution that can be changed.”
Clauses in question
Myanmar’s parliament is currently discussing recommendations made in a report submitted last month by the legislature’s constitutional amendment committee containing proposals from all political parties, civilian organizations, and the military.
Shwe Mann said that a referendum will be held in May to gauge public opinion on any changes to the charter, but any amendments would only be approved by members of the new parliament, which would reconvene in 2016 following elections late next year.
Among amendments proposed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party are changes to article 436 of the constitution, which effectively gives the military a veto over charter reforms.
The military controls 25 percent of seats in parliament and can reject any proposed amendments because article 436 requires more than 75 percent of parliamentary representatives to approve any change.
The NLD and Myanmar’s 88 Generation students group collected nearly 5 million signatures during a campaign from May 27 to July 19 to press the USDP to remove the military's veto over charter changes.
Amending article 436 would pave the way for constitutional reforms, including to article 59(F) of the charter, which prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the presidency in next year’s general elections because her two sons are British citizens.
On Monday, most military lawmakers rejected amending articles 436 and 59(F).
Shwe Mann on Tuesday also expressed hope that he would win the presidency next year and succeed Thein Sein, whose quasi-civilian administration took power from the former junta in 2011 and enacted sweeping democratic reforms in Myanmar.
“I hope to become president after 2015 … because I want to work towards the interests of the country and the people, and the only position and person who can do that is the president,” he said.
‘Speaker cannot decide’
Following Shwe Mann’s press conference, NLD spokesman Nyan Win told RFA that it was not up to the parliamentary speaker to decide when amendments could be made to the constitution.
“Only the [parliamentary] representatives can decide when to make the amendments—the speaker cannot decide this,” he said, adding that Shwe Mann’s announcement was “incorrect,” according to the law.
“He hasn’t given a reason why he said this. Only if he gives a reason can we consider it.”
Nyan Win acknowledged that Aung San Suu Kyi could not become president if the article barring her from the position was not removed before next year’s election, but stressed that Shwe Mann “does not have [the] kind of authority” to make that decision.
He slammed Thein Sein’s administration and the ruling party for their reluctance to accept change in Myanmar at the risk of losing power.
“The present government and the USDP want change, but they do not want to lose their privileges nor do they want their lives to be affected,” he said.
“By putting those [desires] at the forefront as priorities, change becomes very slow.”
NLD lawmaker Zaw Myint Maung told RFA that parliament could not ignore the demands of the 5 million people—a tenth of Myanmar’s population—who signed the petition calling for amendments to the constitution.
“If we fail to implement the wishes of the people at this opportune and appropriate time, history will blame [parliament] for not acting in their interest,” he said.
‘Desire of the people’
Mya Aye, a leader of the 88 Generation students group, on Tuesday questioned whether Shwe Mann had the right to speak on behalf of all of parliament’s lawmakers by saying that the charter could only be amended after the elections.
“It is the desire of the people to go to the 2015 elections only after amending the constitution,” he said.
“We do not ask how or to what extent the changes are to be made … But the idea of change must be entertained. Currently, nothing is happening, so it is very disappointing.”
He said that it was “too early” to know whether the people of Myanmar would accept 2015 elections without constitutional change, but that “as it stands now, all our hopes [for a democratic transition] have been destroyed.”
Shwe Mann’s announcement came days after U.S. President Barack Obama, who traveled to Myanmar last week to participate in the ASEAN-U.S. Summit, called on the country’s leaders to press ahead with constitutional reform.
He also underscored the need for a credible and inclusive process for holding next year's elections, according to the White House, and questioned any constitutional provision that would bar somebody from contesting the presidency because of who their children are.
It is widely believed that Aung San Suu Kyi's party stands a good chance of winning next year's elections. But a parliamentary committee in June voted against changing the clause that prohibits her for standing as a presidential candidate.
Reported by Ko Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.