The leader of a group of military lawmakers in Myanmar’s parliament said Wednesday that it is uncertain whether the legislators will participate in discussions to form a joint committee to amend the 2008 constitution drafted by a former military junta that ruled the country.
Myanmar’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to approve the first stage of a proposal by a lawmaker from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party to form a joint committee to amend the country's constitution, despite staunch opposition from military MPs who boycotted the vote by standing in silence.
After the vote, military MP Brigadier General Maung Maung said military lawmakers would consider whether or not to participate in discussions on the measure, but on Wednesday he said they had yet to talk about it but would take it up in due time.
He added that parliamentary speaker T Khun Myat announced that lawmakers who want to discuss the proposal must register to do so by Thursday. Discussions among legislators will likely begin in February.
When reporters asked Maung Maung whether military MPs would consider changing Article 59(f), which bars NLD leader and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, and Article 436, which requires that proposed changes to the constitution be supported by more than 75 percent of legislators, he said that they would think about it when other lawmakers discuss the issue in the parliament.
The NLD called for amendments to the two articles in the run-up to the November 2015 election, which it won by a landslide, but later backed away from its push after coming to power so as not to provoke the powerful armed forces.
Also at issue would likely be Article 261(a), which grants the president authority to appoint regional chief ministers, though Maung Maung said the military MPs agree that regional parliaments should appoint their own chief ministers.
Some ethnic political parties opposed the NLD’s appointment of chief ministers in their states after the party came to power in 2016.
“Local ethnic parties received many votes in their own states, but the ruling party appointed the chief ministers,” he said. “And there are many problems between these government-appointed chief ministers and state parliaments and local political parties.”
“If we want to resolve this problem, we should amend something in the constitution so as to appoint regional chief ministers by the respective regional parliaments,” he said.
Some MPs believe that several key articles of the constitution must be changed because they are not in line with democratic standards, while others say they should be amended to help forge peace and create a federal union in the country which has been disrupted for decades by wars between the government military and various ethnic armies.
Military lawmakers, who control a quarter of the seats by appointment in the legislature and have a crucial veto to block proposed constitutional changes, could see their political power diminish if certain changes to the existing charter are made.
However, they say they oppose the emergency proposal because it is not in line with parliamentary procedure and bylaws.
‘Expectations that we can do it’
Some lawmakers from ethnic political parties have voiced optimism about changing the country’s charter.
“There are many things we could do in our regions. However, our ethnic political parties do not have enough power,” said Khin Saw Wai, a lower house lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents the Rathedaung constituency in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
“The NLD is the strongest party in parliament, so we’d be able to amend the constitution only if the NLD collaborated with us,” she said. “We have expectations that we can do it."
Sai Thiha Kyaw, a lower house MP from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy Party (SNLD), said his party would generally back a move by the NLD to change the charter.
“We will support it if the NLD takes the initiative to amend the constitution. But the number of amendments we could make will depend on the military: for instance, how much the military would allow us to amend politically-related articles,” he said.
“As politics relates to peace, the military’s attitude [towards the amendments] is important,” he added.
Khin Aung Myint, a former speaker of the upper house of parliament who now represents Mandalay region’s No. 8 constituency as an opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker, said a referendum vote on proposed constitutional changes should be avoided.
“It would be a waste of time and money to hold a referendum for amending the constitution, so we should first try amending it with more than 75 percent of votes in parliament instead of holding a referendum.”
Many provisions of the constitution, including Articles 59(f) and 436, require that proposals for changes be approved by at least 75 percent of both houses of parliament and then be put to a nationwide referendum in which at least half of the eligible voter population must vote in favor of them.
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said the best approach to amending the constitution would be for lawmakers from all parties, including military MPs, to work together.
“It would be best if we could amend the constitution inclusively by working together,” he said. “If the military cannot participate or is not ready to do it right now, then we have to wait until they can do so.”
In the meantime, however, the NLD would have to begin working on amendments with lawmakers who are willing to discuss the changes, he said.
“As the military MPs said they didn’t reject amending the constitution, but only rejected the procedure, I think they will participate with us if we talk and discuss the procedure with them.”
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.