Myanmar lawmakers on Thursday failed to pass constitutional amendments proposed by Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy party to reduce the power of the country’s military chief during states of emergency.
The current charter, drafted in 2008 by a military junta that previously ruled the country, grants sovereign power to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in times of emergency.
Voting a day after de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to keep advancing constitutional reform, legislators rejected NLD proposals that would have changed sections of the charter allowing military coups during national emergencies and permitting the military commander-in-chief to take control of the country.
NLD lawmakers wanted a repeal of Article 412(a) which lets the president declare a state of emergency in situations that threaten Myanmar’s sovereign power or in the case of insurgencies, but requires the country’s leader to coordinate plans with the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council (NDSC).
If all NDSC members are not available, the article says, the president must consult the commander-in-chief, deputy commander-in-chief, and ministers of defense and home affairs.
The NLD also had proposed a revocation of a constitutional requirement for the president to obtain the approval of the NDSC for state of emergency declarations.
NLD lawmaker Tin Maung Win, who voted in favor of the amendments, said that despite the military votes against the measures, legislators from ethnic parties had voted in favor of constitutional reform.
“Over 40 MPs from other parties are supporting the cause,” he said, based on the results of the voting. “I’m very happy about that, though we lost the ballot. It shows us that ethnic parties are supporting constitutional reform.”
Soe Thein, a lawmaker from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said the votes reflected the partisan nature of the parliament.
“It doesn’t depend on the issue,” he said. “The NLD MPs will always votes in favor of every issue they have brought up. The military MPs will support the issues their MPs have raised. Rakhine, Shan, and other ethnic parties will do the same. That’s how it works. The votes are not decided by the logic.”
He also said that engagement prior to the vote may have produced a different outcome.
“If they had held negotiations beforehand, the results could have been different,” Soe Thein said. “If they had negotiated, we could have found common ground on amending these clauses.”
During a meeting with locals in the town of Shwebo in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region on Wednesday, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said she would keep pushing for constitutional reform despite the challenges.
“As for when and under which conditions constitutional reform will succeed, it is obvious that when those who have the right to object stop objecting, it will succeed,” she said.
From March 10 through the end of the month, lawmakers are voting on dozens of amendments, many of which have been submitted by the NLD to curb the military’s political power and make the charter more democratic.
During the third day of voting on Thursday, all the NLD’s proposals failed to win the required approval of 75 percent of lawmakers because military lawmakers, who control a quarter of parliamentary seats, and have an effective veto over proposed charter changes.
On Tuesday, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to become president was rejected by military lawmakers, who essentially vetoed the measure.
The civilian-led NLD headed by Aung San Suu Kyi made constitutional reform one of its key campaign promises during the last nationwide election five years ago.
Of the 43 proposals that lawmakers have voted on so far, only two — pertaining to changes to the written term for “disabled” — have passed.
Legislators will cast ballots for a dozen more constitutional amendments proposed by the NLD on Friday, including one to strike down the military’s veto on changes to the charter.
Progress on peace talks
Also on Thursday, Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives from ethnic armed organizations that have signed the government’s nationwide peace accord agreed on Thursday to hold the next round of peace negotiations in April in Shan state, a government spokesman said.
Government delegates led by the state counselor at the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) meeting in the capital Naypyidaw said they and representaties from the ethnic armies will hold national-level peace talks in the Shan town of Laihka.
“We agreed to hold the peace talks in Laihka,” said Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay, who also serves as director general of the State Counselor’s Office. “We talked about the timing.”
Those who attended the meeting discussed the prospect of holding the negotiations in western Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Rakhine state, where the Myanmar military is fighting the rebel Arakan Army.
“It would be challenging to hold national-level peace talks in Rakhine state,” Zaw Htay said.
“Instead of holding them there at the national level, we agreed to hold an event like a forum or meeting in Yangon,” he added.
The UPDJC is instrumental in convening periodic peace talks, known as the 21st-Century Panglong Conference.
Peace negotiations under this mechanism have been put on hold because of ongoing armed conflicts in Rakhine and Shan states.
‘Accept these trade-offs’
Though Aung San Suu Kyi has been spearheading efforts to end Myanmar’s decades-long civil wars and to build a build a democratic federal union that includes ethnic minorities, only three Panglong Conference meetings have been held since the NLD came into power in 2016.
“It takes only one group from a negotiating party to destroy the ongoing peace process, so only with the coordination of all groups will this process succeed,” Aung San Suu Kyi told the meeting attendees.
“I want you to be aware that not all groups will have their wishes and demands fulfilled completely,” she added. “You cannot come to the negotiation table with the attitude that your demands are to be fulfilled completely. Only by compromising will you be suitable for sitting at the negotiation table, and you will need to accept these trade-offs at the negotiation table.”
Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic army leaders called Thursday’s meeting a success, though military delegates did not speak to the media about it.
Ten ethnic armed organizations have signed the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement (NCA), which forms the foundation of the government's peace talks. But about a dozen others, several of which are engaged in hostilities with Myanmar forces, have not.
Following the signing of the NCA in October 2015, a Union-level Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JCMC) was created later that year to monitors the implementation of the pact.
The body comprises representatives from the government, military, political parties, parliament, and the 10 ethnic armed organizations that have signed the NCA. The JCMC held its last meeting more than a year ago.
UPDJC vice chairman Salai Lian Hmung Sakhong, who is also vice chairman of the Chin National Front, one of the NCA signatories, said the next peace conference will go as planned as long as the coronavirus pandemic does not disrupt it.
“The working committees concerned are working on the plan, and it will succeed unless it is interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak which has now been declared a pandemic,” he said.
Reported by Thet Su Aung and Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.