Rule Prohibiting Open Debate on Myanmar Charter Changes Under Fire

myanmar-parliament-aug-2013.jpg Myanmar lawmakers attend a parliamentary session in Naypyidaw, Aug. 16, 2013.

Myanmar’s parliament has come under criticism for prohibiting a panel of lawmakers that is considering constitutional amendments from openly debating the proposed changes.

The 109-member parliamentary committee is scheduled to weigh changes to the constitution over the next four months, according to a timetable announced last week after the panel was established in June to review the charter written by the country's former military junta.

But panel members from both the ruling and opposition parties are required to keep discussions confidential until the committee submits its report to parliament at the end of the year, a statement by the panel said.

Some groups are pushing for amendments that would allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to make a bid to become the country’s president, provide greater self-rule for ethnic minorities, and put an end to parliamentary seats reserved for the military.

“Because these are national-level issues, I think we should have the right to speak out about them,” opposition lawmaker Tun Aung Kyaw, who is a panel member, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“That is not against the interests of the nation,” said Tun Aung Kyaw, from the ethnic Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP).

“People might want to know what we are doing … [but] if it is controlled like this, it will not be possible to discuss [the proposals] with the people and with intellectuals to get the best results,” he said.

Committee secretary Aye Mout announced last week that the panel will come out with its report by Dec. 31.

A statement said that committee rules require members to keep deliberations secret until the report with their recommendations is submitted.

'Should not be kept secret'

Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said committee members should not be barred from speaking out about all issues considered in the review, although it might be reasonable to bar them from discussing particularly sensitive ones.

“Amending the 2008 constitution, which belongs to all Myanmar citizens and all ethnic groups, is not something that should be kept secret,” he said.

“If members are forbidden from speaking out on all topics of discussions, this is not transparent.”  

But some lawmakers said the rule was a standard procedure that should be respected.

“A committee formed by parliament must obey the rules set by parliament,” said Myat Nana Soe, a lawmaker from Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy.  

“It is not only the 109 members of the committee who will decide on the constitution; the other [nearly] 600 members of parliament are also going to discuss the committee’s findings, and everybody will find out about their findings at the same time.”

“It’s not a rule that’s only for this committee,” he said.     

Barring Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency

Amending the constitution has been a major objective for the popular NLD, which joined parliament last year after boycotting earlier elections.

The charter was drawn up in 2008 by the country’s former military junta in order to maintain power.

The NLD is banking on having the constitutional amendments endorsed before the 2015 general elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi hopes her party will wrest power so that she can take over the presidency from incumbent Thein Sein, a former military general.

Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from assuming the presidency under the current constitution, which says that any Myanmar national whose relatives are foreign citizens or hold foreign citizenship is not qualified to serve as president or vice-president.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband was British and her two sons hold British citizenship.

The NLD also wants the constitution amended to do away with the military’s quota of 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

A constitutional amendment requires at least 75 percent approval in parliament before it is put to a national referendum.

But together, the military and Thein Sein’s military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) control more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament.

“We will try to work towards democracy as much as we can, but we are in the minority. We will try to get the participation of other parties,” NLD lawmaker and constitutional review committee member Win Myint said.

Hla Swe of the ethnic Shan Nationalities Development Party said his party would support  amending the constitution to get rid of provisions that bar Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.

“They say [these articles] were written to target Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. “They should be amended by the people’s vote.”

After all, Hla Swe said, longtime Myanmar dictator General Ne Win, who ruled the country for decades until the late 1980s, was himself briefly married to a foreigner—June Rose Bellamy (also known as Yadana Natmei), a Swiss citizen of European and royal Myanmar descent.

Committee make-up

The constitutional review committee comprises 52 USDP lawmakers, 25 military representatives, seven NLD lawmakers, and some lawmakers from ethnic parties.

It is a joint committee of both Upper and Lower House members.

Activist lawyer Ko Ni said he is concerned that minority views in the committee will be drowned out if the panel puts all recommendations to a vote.

“If the members of parliament have to vote [on the recommendations], the majority will win … and there will be no point in … discussing it in parliament,” he said.

Ethnic autonomy

Many of Myanmar’s ethnic-based parties are pushing for constitutional amendments creating a federalist system that would allow the states greater autonomy.

“What I want to amend most is the power-sharing section,” Hla Swe said. “I want the central government to reduce its power and share it with state and division governments, especially with regard to natural resources.”

RNDP chairman Aye Maung said in an interview in Washington that amendments creating a federalist system might be more easily achieved after the next elections.

“We must amend the most important things in the time remaining before the 2015 election,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“I think the best time to amend the constitution to be a democratic federal constitution is between 2015 and 2020.”

Reported by Zin Mar Win, Nay Rain Kyaw, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.


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