Myanmar’s veteran civil society organization the 88 Generation Students has teamed up with the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), a key coalition of ethnic minority groups, to push for amendments to the country’s military-drafted constitution, the two organizations announced Thursday.
A UNA official said they agreed to cooperate on addressing three main issues, including pushing for a change to a constitutional provision that says that any charter reform can only take place with the support of more than 75 percent of the lawmakers.
The provision, Article 436 of Chapter 12 of the constitution, effectively gives the powerful military bloc a veto over any charter amendments based on its 25 percent control of parliament.
“We agreed on three points of collaboration, including to hold inclusive stakeholder meetings, to amend Article 436 of Section 12, and to promote a democratic and federal system in the country,” said Sai Nyunt Lwin, secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) party, a UNA member.
88 Generation and UNA have never formally worked together but have both advocated for democracy and ethnic rights in the country.
The decision to collaborate came amid concerns over the slow progress—both within the government and legislature controlled by the ruling party—in bringing about the charter changes before crucial November 2015 elections.
It also follows an announcement by the 88 Generation last month that it would work with Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party to jointly push for amendments to the country’s constitution—specifically Chapter 12—in a bid to ensure full democracy and the formation of a federal union.
After soliciting proposals from the public last year, a 31-member constitutional amendment implementation committee within parliament has been charged with completing a review of possible charter changes at least six months before next year’s polls.
Mya Aye, a spokesman for the 88 Generation who also attended Thursday’s meeting, said that his organization and the UNA could supplement the debate over possible constitutional amendments by providing an important perspective from outside of parliament.
“I don’t challenge the idea that parliament should debate amending the constitution, but I think we can’t amend it without incorporating opinions from groups that lack representation in the legislature, such as from armed ethnic groups,” he said.
“Our all-inclusive stakeholder meetings will also consider these points of view.”
Eleven of the 31 seats in the new implementation committee are held by the ruling United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), while the military has seven and the NLD has two. The remaining seats are held by either smaller opposition or ethnic parties.
Also in attendance at Thursday’s meeting were leaders Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, and Jimmy Kyaw Min Yu from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, SNLD chairman Khun Tun Oo, Mon Democracy Party chairman Naing Ngwe Thein and Arakan League for Democracy chairman U Aye Thar Aung.
UNA members on Thursday separately met and discussed amendment strategy with members from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), another key coalition of 12 ethnic rebel groups.
Working outside parliament
Sai Nyunt Lwin told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the meeting that the 88 Generation and the UNA will hold future meetings to discuss their detailed approach to amending Article 436.
“Neither of us has any representation in parliament, so we need to find a way to do this outside of the legislature. We will discuss later how exactly we will approach it,” he said.
Sai Nyunt Lwin said that no timetable had been set to hold the proposed “all-inclusive meetings,” but said that both sides hoped to do so “as soon as possible.”
“We are hoping to start either formal or informal small political discussions first to hold the all-inclusive stakeholder meetings, though we haven’t prepared anything yet,” he said.
“We have had several discussions within UNA member parties, but we should begin holding discussions with parties that are non-UNA members as well.”
He said that the 88 Generation and the UNA plan to discuss many other topics related to proposed constitution amendments, but that Thursday’s pledge to work together included “the points on which we can’t disagree.”
Critics have labeled Myanmar’s constitution fundamentally “undemocratic” and have called for extensive changes, including to the process for making amendments.
The country’s ruling officials have mostly expressed support for constitutional amendments, but with elections barely two years away, some observers say the process so far has been slow.
Over the weekend, hundreds of protesters in Yangon, Mandalay, and Pegu division called for changes to Article 436 and another article in Chapter 12 that currently bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency because her sons are foreign citizens.
The UNA on Thursday also held discussions with UNFC deputy secretary Khun Okka on proposed charter changes, Sai Nyunt Lwin said.
The UNFC has advocated scrapping the 2008 junta-written constitution altogether in favor of a new charter that allows for greater autonomy and better political representation for ethnic groups.
“We told him that we hadn’t seen the draft constitution that the UNA and UNFC have been jointly writing,” he said, adding that Khun Okka had promised to send them a draft shortly.
Sai Nyunt Lwin said that the UNA had also discussed Khun Okka’s participation at a meeting in Kachin state’s Laiza town in October and November last year, at which ethnic leaders reached an 11-point agreement on their goals for nationwide cease-fire negotiations with the government.
But he acknowledged that the UNA was not focused on military issues and said only that his organization would “have a role when the political dialogue begins [between ethnic groups and the government] after they sign the cease-fire agreement.”
President Thein Sein’s reformist government has signed cease-fire agreements with 14 armed groups in the past two years and has been keen to sign a nationwide cease-fire with these ethnic rebel groups.
Earlier this week, however, Khun Okka said that a recent increase in fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar could derail the ongoing peace process.
In recent weeks government troops have reportedly launched a number of attacks, killing rebel soldiers and seizing several rebel defense posts in northern Shan and Kachin states.
Khun Okka said that government officials and ethnic rebel leaders will hold preliminary talks on March 9-10 in order to smooth some differences and set up the next nationwide cease-fire conference in Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin (Karen) state.
Reported by Myo Zaw Ko for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.