YANGON — Ahead of national elections due later this year, Myanmar’s military-influenced parliament voted on Thursday to maintain the army’s veto over key legislative changes and to keep a law that prevents popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from standing for president.
After three days of debate on proposed amendments to the country’s constitution, lawmakers opted against any substantive changes to the charter, which was imposed in 2008 by Myanmar’s former military government.
Describing the outcome as “not a shock,” Han Tha Myint, a senior member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said the party would now decide whether to contest nationwide elections scheduled for November.
“We have to meet to discuss this,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review.
The NLD has been the foremost critic of the constitution, which the party says gives the army too much sway in governing Myanmar, a former British colony that formally transitioned to civilian government in 2011 after five decades of army rule.
One of the key proposals rejected on Thursday would have reduced the level of parliamentary support needed to amend the constitution from 75% to 70% of members, effectively removing a veto wielded by the military, which is guaranteed 25% of the seats.
Another amendment would have diluted a constitutional provision barring citizens who are or have been married to foreigners, or whose children hold foreign citizenship, from contesting the presidency or vice-presidency.
Suu Kyi, who is a widow, was married to a British citizen, and her two sons hold foreign passports, implying that the latter clause is aimed directly at barring her from the highest office.
The proposed amendment would not have deleted the entire article dealing with supposed foreign influences on a future president, but would have erased the reference to spouses, removing one bar to a Suu Kyi candidacy.
Had lawmakers voted to make it easier for Suu Kyi to stand for president, and to end the military’s effective veto, the next step would have been a national referendum on the proposed amendments, which would have become law if they had received majority support.
Few observers thought that the military and its affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party, which together hold the bulk of parliamentary seats, were likely to vote willingly for a dilution of their powers.
However, more than two-thirds of lawmakers voted to end the military’s veto on change, suggesting that the USDP wished to avoid appearing to be irrevocably opposed to change, knowing that military MPs would block the amendment.
“Today’s failure to pass most of the major demands for constitutional change will create skepticism in some quarters about existing institutions’ ability to resolve Burma’s most thorny political issues,” said Andrew McLeod, a constitutional law expert at the U.K.’s Oxford University, using an alternative name for Myanmar.
“Threat” to sovereignty
During the three days of debate held at Myanmar’s parliamentary complex in the capital Naypyitaw, military representatives in parliament described the prospect of changing the constitution as a threat to national sovereignty.
“That mixed blood citizens [might be allowed to] manage the affairs and administration of the country would have bad impacts on the independence and sovereignty of the country,” said Brig-Gen. Tin Soe, an army-appointed MP.
Suu Kyi, the target of the army’s disdain, said in December 2013 that unless the constitution was amended, the NLD would boycott the elections, as it did in 2010, when the army-backed USDP won a landslide victory in what was widely dismissed as rigged vote.
After a nationwide campaign led by Suu Kyi, the NLD last year gathered 5 million signatures petitioning for constitutional change to allow her to stand for the presidency or vice-presidency and to change the mechanism for future constitutional change.
Khon Ja, an activist from the 1.2 million mostly-Christian Kachin minority living in the north of Myanmar, said that she hoped the NLD would not sit out the election in protest at its failure to amend the constitution.
“In 2010 the citizens had no options,” Khon Ja said, discussing the last elections. “If the NLD boycotts this time, then a lot of other parties may follow them.”
However, Khon Ja also criticized Suu Kyi for focusing too much on the constitution, and on the clauses that prevent her from taking the highest office, rather than on the Myanmar government’s attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the country’s many ethnic-minority militias.
“Conflict is still going on, and with or without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the peace process should still go on” said Khon Ja, using an honorary Burmese title for the opposition leader.
The ethnic conflicts include continued fighting between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army, an armed group operating close to the frontier with China. About 40% of Myanmar’s population of 51 million people, according to a 2014 census, are believed to be from ethnic minority groups.
Han Tha Myint said the NLD would try again to change the constitution after the 2015 election, if it decides to put up candidates. He said the party could expect significantly greater representation in parliament after the vote. “The polling done by our party shows we can win a lot of seats,” Han Tha Myint said.Show