Myanmar’s full parliament on Wednesday approved a motion to form a committee to draft amendments to the constitution, despite strong opposition by military legislators whose political power is guaranteed by the charter.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) put forward an emergency proposal in late January to create the ad hoc committee to amend the military-drafted 2008 constitution that the party views as undemocratic.
Military lawmakers oppose the move because it would likely diminish their political power, including their automatic quarter of the seats in the national and regional parliaments, a crucial veto over proposed constitutional changes, and control of three security and defense ministries.
When lawmakers voted to approve the first stage of the proposal to form the committee on Jan. 29, military representatives showed their disagreement by standing in silence.
After 30 legislators debated the measure on Tuesday, more than 600 members of both houses of parliament on Wednesday approved setting up the committee in a 414-191 vote, with six abstentions.
Parliamentary speaker T Khun Myat announced that the committee would be formed with a proportionate number of lawmakers from all political parties and military members of parliament.
Deputy speaker Tun Tun Hein will chair the new committee and a meeting will be held to set the numbers of committee members and the terms of the committee, T Khun Myat said, though he did not mention when the meeting would be scheduled.
“They said that they would discuss how many members will be on the committee, who the members will be, how the committee will work, and the rights of the committee when they hold the meeting,” said Brigadier General Maung Maung who leads the group of military legislators.
“We will only know the details then,” he said. “We can’t say anything now and decide whether we will agree to be part of the committee or not.”
NLD lawmaker Aung Kyi Nyunt, who submitted the proposal, expressed optimism that parliament, including the military MPs, will be able to amend the constitution.
“If we do constitutional reform appropriately given the historical situation, the country’s current situation, and the mainstream events of the world, the constitution will become effective,” he said.
“Because lawmakers are the ones responsible for ensuring that the constitution is a living document, military MPs have to participate in it [the committee],” he said. “When doing so, military MPs should have the right to suggest, for example, which articles should be amended and how. They should also take this opportunity to make suggestions.”
Nan Moe, a lower house lawmaker from the Ta’ang (Palaung) National Party, said MPs who serve on the committee should be chosen based on their expertise.
“Political party leaders know which party members are good in whichever field,” she said. “What I would like to suggest is that the chairmen of the parties select their members to serve on the joint committee to amend the constitution.”
Lar Mar Lay, a lower house MP from the Lisu National Development Party, said, “We will get precise [and] solid facts to amend the constitution” if representatives from both elected political parties and non-elected parties participate in the process.
Naing Thiha, an upper house MP from the Mon National Party, said the number of representatives appointed to the new committee is not relevant.
“I don’t think it is important how many MPs are on the committee,” he said. “It is important to have an opportunity to say what you want during the discussion.”
Not everyone is sanguine about the prospect of amending the charter, however.
“The NLD knows that it cannot amend the constitution in parliament, but it has to try because the 2020 election is getting closer, said Thein Than Oo, one of the founding members of the Myanmar Lawyers' Network, an organization set up in 2011 to challenge the former military-backed government’s disbarment of attorneys viewed as a political threat.
“The NLD promised in 2015 to amend the constitution, and it wants to show people that it is trying to work on its promise,” he said. “Although they are forming a committee, it is impossible to amend the constitution [through parliament].”
In the run-up to the 2015 general election, which the NLD won by a landslide, the political party pledged to make certain changes to the constitution if it came into power.
But once the NLD was in office, the party was reluctant to continue pushing for amendments that would anger the powerful military.
Thein Nyunt, chairman of the New National Democracy Party, said he is convinced that the measure will go nowhere.
“As the proposal runs counter to Chapter 12 of the constitution and to Union Parliament law and bylaws, the move is not moving in the right direction according to legislation,” he said. “That’s why we will not get a favorable result.”
The military-backed, main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) also disapproved of the move to form the committee.
“Whether the USDP’s MPs will participate in the joint committee or not will depend on what they do next,” said USDP spokesman Thein Tun Oo.
“We have been rejecting the formation of the committee because it is not in accordance with the law, and yet they have decided to form it,” he said.
But NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt countered, “We are trying [to amend the constitution] because we believe we will achieve what we want to. We have said that we will do everything possible to amend it.”
Change through dialogue
Some other political parties said that they are willing to support the NLD’s efforts to change the charter.
“Our party will help the NLD as much as we can to amend the constitution,” said Sai Laik, joint secretary of the Shan National League for Democracy Party (SNLD), adding that at least three MPs from the SNLD will participate in the new joint committee.
But he said he did not agree that the NLD had pushed for the committee’s formation because of the general elections scheduled for 2020.
“If the NLD really wants to amend the constitution, the NLD can find a basic policy by talking with military and ethnic leaders instead of trying to amend the constitution in parliament alone,” he said.
The NLD has not specified which sections of the charter it wants to amend, though in the past it called for changes to Article 436, which requires that proposed changes to the constitution be supported by more than 75 percent of legislators, and effectively allows the military bloc of MPs to veto proposed amendments.
It also has sought to change Article 59(f), which bars NLD leader and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because she has relatives who are foreign nationals. Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British citizen, as are her two sons.
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.