On Thursday, a move to amend Myanmar’s constitution largely failed in the country’s parliament, confirming that the military’s effective veto will remain and that opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president heading into elections scheduled for later this year.
Constitutional reform has been a buzzword of sorts in Myanmar as the country prepares for polls following a historic opening in 2011 after a half a century of military rule. But hopes have dimmed in recent months, with Suu Kyi telling The Washington Post in an interview earlier this month that “the government is totally opposed to constitutional amendment.”
After three days of parliamentary debate, two key amendments failed to be adopted because they fell short of the voted required. The first was one to trim the share of votes needed to amend the constitution from 75 percent to 70 percent, which would have ended the effective veto that unelected members of the military have by holding a quarter of the seats.
The second was amending a clause that bars anyone whose spouse or children are loyal to foreign countries from becoming president or vice-president – a clause believed to be directed at Suu Kyi whose late husband and two sons are British citizens. The amendment would not have stricken the clause entirely; it would have just dropped the reference to foreign spouses. Suu Kyi, who heads the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), would still have been ineligible to run for president.
The one proposal that did get adopted was a slight change to a clause that requires a presidential candidate to be “well-acquainted” with several key areas. While the constitution had earlier specified familiarity with political, economic, administrative and military affairs, the word “military” is to be replaced with defence”.
The failure of the constitutional amendments is no surprise since it would curb the power of the country’s powerful military, which has a stranglehold on parliament. During the debate, which began Tuesday, NLD lawmakers reportedly argued that given the outpouring of respect and support for Suu Kyi among the people, barring her from running in the election did not make sense. But military lawmakers defended the continued political role of the armed forces, arguing that Myanmar’s transition to democracy was still too fragile.
“Myanmar is still [in] a democratic transition…stability and reconciliation are very important in this period and democratic practices are not mature enough yet,” Brigadier General Tin San Naing, one of the 166 military parliamentarians, told the house as debate opened. “This is not the right time.”
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi, who has repeatedly said that reform would be the only way to guarantee a fair election, said the failure of the constitutional amendments had only confirmed what many had long suspected.
“I am not surprised with the result,” Suu Kyi told reporters following the vote. “This makes it very clear that the constitution can never be changed if the military representatives are opposed.”
The failure of the constitutional amendments confirms that the reform process following the general election this year will continue to face significant hurdles. Even if Suu Kyi’s NLD secures an impressive win, as many expect it to do, the constitution would still ensure that the military retains significant control of key positions and decisions. As The Diplomat reported earlier, the NLD is yet to formally confirm that it will compete in the elections though most expect it to do so (See: “Myanmar’s Opposition Leader Seeks ‘Landslide Win’ in Upcoming Polls”).