Myanmar’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to approve the first stage of a proposal to form an ad hoc committee to amend the country's constitution, despite opposition from military lawmakers who control a quarter of the seats in the legislature and whose political power would likely be eroded by changes to the existing charter.
Those who voted in favor of the measure totaled 397, with 17 voting against it, three abstentions, and 187 lawmakers — including the military MPs and 21 others — refusing to vote.
Military MPs, who are appointed, not elected, to a quarter of the seats in parliament under the 2008 constitution drafted by a former army junta that ruled the country boycotted the vote by standing in silence during the session.
The proposal put forward by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party said lawmakers from all parties should be included in the committee.
Military MP Brigadier General Maung Maung said lawmakers from the armed forces did not agree with the proposal.
“We are not rejecting amendments, but rather the emergency proposal in question because it is not in line with parliamentary laws, bylaws, and procedures,” he said. “We'll have to discuss it among ourselves. That's why we abstained.”
“It is imperative that lawmakers carry out their tasks in accordance with the law,” he said. “Overstepping the law or using deceptive means will not produce positive results. We all should work only in accord with the existing parliamentary procedures.”
Parliamentary speaker T Khun Myat rejected Maung Maung’s complaint and asked lawmakers to vote for further discussions on the proposal.
NLD legislator Aung Kyi Nyunt, who submitted the proposal, said that lawmakers from various political parties can serve on the joint committee on constitutional reform.
“I am not proposing a draft law to amend the constitution,” he said during the parliamentary session when the vote was held. “This is just to form a joint committee on constitutional reform which can work transparently on a draft law systematically and speedily.”
Lawmakers attempted to amend the constitution during the previous government of former President Thein Sein, but were only able to make changes to a few items on regional legislation.
Military stands to lose
Myanmar’s military would stand to lose some of the political power it wields if certain sections of the charter are changed. Under the current constitution, military MPs hold a crucial veto to block proposed changes to the charter. The constitution also gives the armed forces control of three defense and security ministries.
Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank formed by military “veteran youths” that claims to be independent, pointed out that 75 percent of MPs must support any amendments to the constitution, which then must be approved by a referendum.
“We still don’t know what articles or points they want to make changes to and what they expect from the amendments,” he said, adding that it may be easier to amend items that the charter doesn’t have restrictions on.
For example, with the NLD government working on the peace process, there are several charters included in the constitution that lay out how power and resources should be shared among ethnic states, Thein Tun Oo said.
“Are we going to amend these, or are we going to amend rules and regulations for elections?” he asked. “Or are we going to take out unqualified lawmakers from parliament?
“If we amend these points in the constitution, it would be easier and we would have more benefits than amending other [articles in the constitution],” he said.
Some lawmakers and political analysts were upbeat about the proposal.
“I think we can amend the constitution,” said Oo Hla Saw, a lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township.
“We aren’t going to try to amend the entire constitution, but the problem is which items we will make amendments to,” he said.
Prominent Myanmar attorney Robert San Aung said if the government has its way, major articles, including 6(d), 436, and 59(f), will be changed.
Article 6(d) states that the “flourishing of a genuine, disciplined, multiparty democratic system” is a consistent objective of the state.
Article 436 requires that proposed changes to the constitution be supported by more than 75 percent of legislators, while Article 59(f) bars NLD leader and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because she has relatives who are foreign nationals. Her late husband was a British citizen, as are her two sons.
“We have to try to see if it’s possible to make these amendments,” he said. “Superficial changes won’t improve the rule of law and order.”
It will be easy to change the parts of constitution which the military lawmakers support, but the changes they oppose will be difficult to push through, he added.
“The military needs to think about amending the constitution by looking at the interests of the people and the country,” Robert San Aung said. “Amending the constitution won’t hurt the military or its dignity, and people will respect it even more if it supports amending the constitution.”
The same move
Aye Kyaw, executive director of the Open Myanmar Initiative, noted that a proposal for the formation of a commission to study amendments to the constitution was put forward just before the end of the previous parliamentary session, but it didn’t take off.
“Parliament came to a close with the commission unable to do anything,” he said. “We are now seeing the same move in the current parliamentary session, and we have to wait and see how much they can do before the session ends.”
The NLD pledged to amend key parts of the constitution, specifically Articles 59(f) and 436, in the run-up to the November 2015 election, which it won by a landslide after more than 50 years of military or military-backed rule.
After the party came to power the following year, it failed to get the effort off the ground as its leaders refrained from challenging the country’s powerful military.
Nevertheless, the government got around Article 59(f), which prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, by creating the new post of state counselor to be above the president.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.