How Constitutional Reform in Myanmar Matters for the Country’s Democracy

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How Constitutional Reform in Myanmar Matters for the Country’s Democracy

While the process may not result in much substantive change, it nonetheless has tangible effects on ties between the NLD, the military, and ethnic parties.

How Constitutional Reform in Myanmar Matters for the Country’s Democracy
Credit: Pixabay

Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy finally submitted its long-awaited constitutional reforms to parliament, but the party is arguably no closer to fulfilling one of its primary campaign promises from 2015.

The pro-democracy party swept into power in Myanmar’s first truly open election in decades, winning nearly 80 percent of the elected seats in parliament. But the military dictatorship had a fail-safe. The constitution reserved 25 percent of the seats to be appointed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and by no coincidence, constitutional amendments require more than 75 percent approval. It’s become one of the more famous instances of a Catch-22 in modern politics.

The NLD promised to make the constitution more democratic. It may seem like political theater to try, but it’s political theater with real-world consequences.

The 114 amendments include clauses to gradually reduce the number of military representatives in parliament and to reduce the threshold needed to approve constitutional amendments. Either of those would effectively remove the military’s veto power, but also would need the military’s approval to pass.

The NLD also wishes to remove the clause that forbids anybody with a foreign spouse or child from becoming president, a rule that disqualifies State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who has British sons with her late British husband. Other interesting proposals include shifting control over the military from the commander-in-chief to the president, giving the supreme court authority over the military justice system, giving more civilian control over the National Defense and Security Council, and changing the country’s flag.

But again, any meaningful proposal that actually expands democracy is likely to be dead on arrival. The NLD walks a delicate tightrope with the antagonistic military, as the threat of another coup hangs perpetually over Myanmar politics.

The NLD could have theoretically just submitted the first two amendments, and once they were rejected, told supporters they did their best. This would have avoided angering the military and avoided totally capitulating. The NLD’s decision to submit so many amendments is subtle but significant. It forces the military to veto dozens of suggestions, coming across as obstructionist and uncompromising.

The military seems to have anticipated this, attempting to shift the narrative to portray the NLD as the uncompromising party that’s simply impossible to work with. Two MPs from the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party dramatically quit the constitutional amendment committee, claiming the NLD refused to listen to them.

It’s hard to take the military’s tantrums seriously when some of its own proposals are blatantly undemocratic – including giving the National Defense and Security Council the ability to dissolve parliament and extending the foreign relatives political ban to include ministerial positions.

However, ethnic minority parties have also accused the NLD of excluding them from the amendment process. Two MPs from the Arakan National Party also quit the committee, and other ethnic parties have complained about the NLD’s unwillingness to listen to their suggestions.

The military has seized onto this conflict and found a way to use it for its own political benefit. Another proposed military amendment would allow state and regional parliaments to select state and regional ministers (similar to a governor position), rather than being selected by the central government. Ethnic parties have much more support locally than nationally and have long pushed for this amendment to give them more local power.

The military is not seeking to win over the ethnic minorities with this proposal. It’s highly unlikely that ethnic parties would seek a coalition with the military or that ethnic voters would be drawn to the military in large numbers. Most ethnic minorities accuse the military of literal war crimes. Rather than gaining support in minority communities, the military is attempting to reduce support for the NLD.

The conflict between ethnic parties and the NLD is ultimately a win-win scenario for the military. Ethnic minority parties can only become more powerful at the expense of the NLD. If the NLD compromises and gives them more local authority, it sacrifices its own local authority.

On the other hand, if the NLD refuses, it angers ethnic minority populations who already feel they are being marginalized by the central government, encouraging them to vote for their local parties rather than the NLD in order to win greater representation.

So, while the amendments are unlikely to have any tangible effects on Myanmar’s laws, they are already having tangible effects on the relationship between the NLD, the military, and the ethnic minority parties.