Roadblock to reform in Myanmar – The Edge Review

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Changing Myanmar’s constitution an uphill battle

YANGON – Aung San Suu Kyi wants to be president of Myanmar. Easier said than done. The country’s constitution says that she cannot. Well, not in as many words, but it is likely that the drafters had her in mind when they included a provision prohibiting anyone from becoming president whose parents, spouse or children hold foreign citizenship.

Aung San Suu Kyi at the June World Economic Forum BBC debate in Naypyidaw (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Aung San Suu Kyi at the June World Economic Forum BBC debate in Naypyidaw (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

As mother of two British sons, Suu Kyi will not, as things stand now, be allowed to realise her ambition of becoming president, even if her National League for Democracy (NLD) wins the general elections scheduled for 2015.

These days Suu Kyi rarely fails to mention her desire to change the constitution in public speeches or increasingly rare interviews. But whether this can happen in time for her to assume the presidency after the 2015 elections is questionable. On July 25, a 109-member parliamentary committee was set up to review the constitution, and the body, which includes seven of Suu Kyi’s party colleagues, will report to the remaining MPs by the end of the year.

The NLD members will surely push to change Article 59f, the one that contains the citizenship provisions for the presidency. But the procedures involved in amending the constitution are arduous. In order for Suu Kyi to present herself as a presidential candidate in 2015, 20 per cent of lawmakers in the upper and lower houses of Myanmar’s parliament have to submit the proposed constitutional amendment as a bill in parliament. Then, after whatever discussion takes place, 75 per cent of parliamentarians have to back the amendment in a vote. Once the change makes it that far, it gets put to a general plebiscite, in which a simple majority of Myanmar’s voters have to support the change. That’s a lot to get agreed and passed before the 2015 elections.

“If you compare the timetable now to the drafting process [for the constitution], which was 14 years, it is a short time,” Nyan Win, NLD spokesman, wryly told The Edge Review. “I am not confident about it [the revision process].”

President Thein Sein, a former army general, has said he has no issue with Suu Kyi succeeding him in 2015. That’s a hint that even though amending the constitution requires the backing of the army – which holds a veto-wielding 25 per cent block of seats in parliament – the institution that Suu Kyi’s father founded and that she herself says she is fond of, might in the end support the change.

It’s inaccurate these days to portray Myanmar’s military and the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) – the army’s proxy party – as monolithic, even if together they control almost 80 per cent of Myanmar’s parliamentary seats. Shwe Mann, the house speaker and former No.3 in the old junta, wants to be president and is embroiled in something of a turf war with incumbent Thein Sein, who may or may not be a candidate once the dust settles after 2015. Both men come from the army, but Shwe Mann outranked Thein Sein under the old regime. Suu Kyi, for her part, has moved closer to Shwe Mann in recent months, after previously forming a reform-promoting alliance with Thein Sein. She has since criticised the pace of reform as insufficient.

But a revision of the constitution isn’t about Suu Kyi or even who becomes president. It is about the future of Myanmar and whether it will be able to develop into a true democracy, one not dominated by the military. For that to happen, the army would have to be persuaded to give up its lock on 25 per cent of seats in parliament, and that is an entirely different matter than even allowing Aung San Suu Kyi become President.

Equally important, the very process for amending the constitution, which is deliberately difficult, needs to be changed.

“If this threshold [for amendment] was lowered and brought in line with common provisions on constitutional amendment accepted in other jurisdictions, then it would ensure that the party that is successful in 2015 may have more of a chance of being able to continue the process of constitutional amendment in the future if necessary,” Dr. Melissa Crouch, Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore and a member of the Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Working Group, told The Edge Review.

It’s worth recalling how the controversial constitution came about. Deliberations dragged on for 14 years, during which members of opposition parties were often ignored or imprisoned.

In the end, in 2008, the government put the constitution to a callously timed and rigged referendum, held shortly after a cyclone killed around 150,000 people in the Irrawaddy Delta.

So cynical was the process that the military government of the day even gave temporary ID cards to at least half the country’s Rohingya Muslims – a minority group otherwise not recognised as citizens of Myanmar – to allow them to vote (part of a scheme that allowed the same people to vote and participate as military-backed candidates in the 2010 elections).

In Myanmar’s borderlands, where the most of the Rohingya, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karen Mon and other ethnic groups live, there’s also agitation for constitutional change. There, however, the push is not to enable Suu Kyi to become president, but to create something resembling a federal state – a drastic reorganisation of how Myanmar has been governed since the 1962 coup. That’s a big ask too, given that the military partly justified that coup on claims that some of the larger, better-armed ethnic minorities wanted to secede from the country then known as Burma.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum held in Naypyidaw in June, minister Soe Thane said that federalism was being considered by the government, without going into details. President Thein Sein later said he hoped to convene a nationwide conference between the government and the country’s ethnic minority militias, some of which have fought the Myanmar army since shortly after the end of the Second World War.

David Tharckabaw, spokesman for the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which represents 11 of Myanmar’s ethnic militias and their related political parties, says the group is drafting an alternative constitution – if not as a replacement document, then as an indicator of what the group wants fixed.

The UNFC wants “to change all the undemocratic and unitary provisions, which [have] caused instability and civil war since the time of independence in 1948,” Tharckabaw told The Edge Review.

But there’s disagreement over the sequencing of change, which fuels the ongoing distrust between the government and many of the ethnic minority militias. The government wants a peace agreement first, but the UNFC wants that to happen in tandem with broader political discussions about devolving power to their homelands. And that means changing the constitution.

There are now 14 ceasefire agreements between the government and groups such as the Karen National Union and New Mon State Party, each new deal a front-page story in Myanmar’s press. Ethnic regions are among Myanmar’s most resource rich, and minorities want devolution of power to better manage and access the investment-peace dividend in their homelands.

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