Myanmar’s speaker of parliament said on Wednesday that a nationwide referendum would be held during the general elections later this year on a constitutional amendment that lawmakers passed last week regarding the wording of the requirements for top political office holders.
Nearly 88 percent of lawmakers approved a change to article 59(d) of the constitution, which states that the country’s president and vice presidents “shall be well acquainted with the affairs of the Union such as political, administrative, economics and military.”
The constitution requires more than 50 percent of voters to approve charter changes that receive 75 percent of lawmaker approval. In this case, they will have to vote on replacing the word “military” with “defense.”
Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house of parliament and a member of the ruling Union party, said the referendum must be held at the same time of the general elections to keep election costs down.
“If we hold a referendum only to amend Article 59(d), we have to spend a lot of time, human resources and money, [but] we save these if we hold the referendum at the same time as the election in late October or early November.”
Not everyone was pleased with the announcement.
“We don’t like this draft amendment for Article 59(d) that we have discussed in the Union parliament,” said Sai Aik Paung, a lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party.
The change to article 59(d) was the only one of six proposed constitutional amendments that lawmakers approved on June 25.
They also shot down a change Article 436(a) which would have lowered the share of parliamentary votes required to approve charter reform to 70 percent from more than 75 percent along with a proposal to limit the veto power of military lawmakers who are guaranteed a quarter of legislative seats through appointment.
Parliament also voted down a proposed change to Article 59(f) of the constitution, which would have changed eligibility requirements that effectively bar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president should her National League for Democracy (NLD) win the general elections, as expected. The foreign nationality of her two sons makes her ineligible to serve as president under current law.
A push for power sharing
Although members of parliament (MPs) had rejected amending Article 436(b), which deals with provisions other than those mentioned in Article 436(a), some ethnic lawmakers on Wednesday continued to debate changing the section to ensure power sharing among parties.
Aye Maung, president of the Arakan National Party, said amending article 436(b) would allow the country’s divisions and states select their chief-ministers through their own parliaments.
“If this were to happen, the current relationship between the military and civilian groups would change from minus to plus,” he said.
“This article [436(b)] is for power sharing,” said Saw Than Myint, spokesman of the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation alliance of 20 ethnic political parties. “As it is power sharing, it must be for all ethnic people in the country.”
“Up to now, only the Union government has controlled all the power,” he said. “[But] if the Union government shared the nation’s power, the division and state parliaments would have some power, and it would support the move towards a democratic or federal system.”
Appointments of chief ministers
Some lawmakers also debated changing charter section 261(b), which deals with the procedures for appointing chief ministers.
Military MPs oppose changing the wording of the current constitution which states that division and state chief-ministers be appointed by the president.
“If division and state chief-ministers were elected by division and state parliaments, the election of chief-ministers could be influenced by local organizations and wouldn’t be fair,” said
Brigadier General Aung Kyaw. “If so, then unity between ethnic people could break down.”
But lawmakers from the country’s ethnic parties support an amendment that mandates division and state chief-ministers be elected by division and state parliaments.
“This is the time for trust building between the people and military, said Thein Swe, an NLD lawmaker.“It is an important opportunity. We can only amend the 2008 constitution if the military-chief agrees. We need to do what we have to with goodwill and courage if we really want to change.”
Meanwhile, NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters that parliament needs to dramatically reduce the number of military MPs. She has called for removing the provision that reserves 25 percent of seats for military lawmakers.
“In a democratic system, no one who is not elected by people should be in parliament, she said. “The NLD has already said this. The number of the military representatives in parliament should be decreased for national reconciliation through step-by-step discussions.”
The Myanmar government has been trying to forge a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the country’s armed ethnic groups before the general elections.
By Win Naung Toe, Khin Khin Ei, Win Ko Ko Lat and Myo Thant Khine. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.