Myanmar’s Constitutional Uncertainty

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Myanmar’s Constitutional Uncertainty

A massive campaign for constitutional reform has ended, with uncertain results.

Myanmar’s Constitutional Uncertainty
Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

YANGON—On July 19 – Martyr’s Day in Myanmar – the National League for Democracy (NLD) wound up an eight-week campaign calling for changes to the country’s constitution. The campaign was launched on May 27 on the back of a series of colorful public rallies in Yangon and other cities. Since then, the NLD, along with former student leaders of the 1988 uprising against military rule, have held further demonstrations across the country and gathered millions of signatures in support of constitutional amendments ahead of next year’s election.

At a rally in Magwe region on July 12, NLD leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi urged members of the military to join the petition and win back the trust and respect of Myanmar’s people. “For the future and stability of democracy in the nation, a good relationship is needed not only between races but also among people from the military and the civilians,” Suu Kyi told the crowd.

The campaign’s main focus is on changing Article 436 of the military-drafted constitution, which requires more than three-quarters of the parliament votes to approve any amendments. Since the constitution reserves  quarter of the seats in the lower house for military candidates, and another half are held by the military-backed, ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Article 436 effectively gives the Myanmar military a de facto veto over any changes. The NLD also hopes to alter Article 59(f), which bars any candidate from the presidency whose spouse, children, or parents are foreign citizens, barring Suu Kyi from holding the nation’s top office. (The NLD leader’s children, like her late husband Michael Aris, are British citizens).

By the end of June the party claimed it had collected 3 million signatures, and announced that the full number would be announced at the end of July. The petitions will then be forwarded to the president, commander-in-chief and parliament. But as the NLD’s campaign comes to an end, it remains uncertain whether it will succeed in forcing concrete changes in time for next year’s election, which the NLD is well-placed to win.

In mid-June, a parliamentary review committee charged with exploring changes to the charter voted against amending Article 59(f), dealing a blow to Suu Kyi’s presidency hopes. There have since been reports that the 31-member committee is open to changing Article 436 – even rumors that the NLD may have agreed to forego one for the other – but details about the extent and timing of the change remain vague.

Analysts say Myanmar’s constitutional conundrum has to be seen in the context of the government’s “seven-step roadmap” from military dictatorship to a sort of hybrid constitutional autocracy – what the old junta termed “discipline flourishing multi-party democracy.” Penned by the former ruling generals, and passed by a flawed referendum in 2008, the constitution was designed specifically to protect the military’s interests during the crafted reform process that has allowed Myanmar to shrug off its status as an international pariah. “It serves to preserve their power and influence, not to guarantee democratic principles,” said David Scott Mathieson, a Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s an artfully constructed document to preserve military interests and perpetuate a softer form of military rule.”

The document is filled with safeguards against any outbreak of “undisciplined” democracy. In addition to reserving a quarter of the seats in the lower house for the military, it also allows the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw to appoint key ministers and gives the military to right to act decisively during  times of “emergency.” All these provisions are in turn controlled by the constitutional master key: Article 436.

In facing down the military, the NLD and 88 Generation activists now face a circular challenge: how to encourage an entrenched military-political complex to make concessions that run directly counter to its long-term political interests. “Aung San Suu Kyi has enormous popular support. But you know, power comes out of the gun’s barrel,” said Myat Thu, the founder of the Yangon School of Political Science. “Article 436 is the entrance to the amendment of the whole constitution. The Burmese military knows that very clearly, so they will resist to the end.”

So far that’s exactly how government officials have responded to the NLD campaign. Burma’s presidential spokesman Ye Htut recently lashed out at the U.S. government for throwing its support behind changes to the constitution. “It is not the concern of the United States. It is inappropriate for us to tell how the US should amend their constitution and likewise the US should not dictate how it should be amended,” he told The Associated Press. Other senior officials have warned Suu Kyi against “challenging the army” or provoking “public disorder,” and say the decision of issue of constitutional reform should be left to the parliamentary committee, whose 31 members are drawn overwhelmingly from the USDP and the military.

As leader of the NLD and during years of repression, the graceful and iconic Suu Kyi became a symbol of democratic resistance to the Tatmadaw. Mathieson said there was previously an expectation – or a hope – that Suu Kyi’s engagement with President Thein Sein, a former general, would yield some minor constitutional concessions, or some voluntary diminution of their power. But if the current standoff lays bare the crafted nature of Myanmar’s reforms, it also suggests strict limits to Suu Kyi’s moral power in the face of a deeply entrenched military apparatus.

“I think at the moment you’d have to say the likelihood of [significant amendments] is very small,” he said. “[The constitution] was fifteen years in planning, and they’re not going to start diluting it any time soon. And if they do, it won’t be until after the 2015 election, when they’re sure that all their interests are intact.” Thiha Saw, editorial director of the Myanmar Times newspaper, agreed that the military had time on its side. “The election is next year, it’s drawing closer and closer … They could drag on the process,” he said.

After half a century at the helm of Myanmar’s politics, the Tatmadaw would probably be an inevitable ingredient of the democratic mix in the run-up to the 2015 election – and beyond. “We realize that we cannot put aside the army in politics, for the time being,” said Ko Ko Gyi, a former student activist and current secretary general of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society. In the meantime, the NLD and its 88 Generation allies will have to walk a tightrope, pressing their demand for constitutional change while doing enough to reassure the military that it would retain an important national role in any future system. With Myanmar now running up against the built-in limitations of the military’s reform plan, Ko Ko Gyi said the process would be necessarily slow. “Gradually we will try to negotiate,” he said, “and struggle to be democratic.”