What's next after Yangon's constitutional reform?

What's next after Yangon's constitutional reform?

Myanmar's ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is preparing for an audacious attempt to change the constitution. The final steps are being taken before the plans are revealed to the parliament and the people. But the changes and the process being rolled out by the civilian government will upset the military, and an acrimonious confrontation between them seems inevitable.

Already preparations are under way for a referendum -- the final step needed to change the most controversial parts of the charter, which gives the military enormous political power, according to senior sources inside the government. Voter lists for a referendum are being drawn up by the Union Election Commission (UEC). A referendum is the final stage for approving constitutional amendments.

This current daring bid to change the constitution is aimed above all at reducing the military's power and will undoubtedly provoke strong resistance, especially the NLD's plan to hold a referendum.

In the initial years of her administration State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi focused largely on the peace process to change the constitution. But she became increasingly frustrated with the lack of any progress towards political change through dialogue, Ms Suu Kyi turned to parliament as the vehicle for change. To that end, the government set up a joint committee to review the constitution and suggest amendments.

This renewed push to change the constitution has been in the pipeline for months. As the government leader, she has made no secret of the government's intention to change the constitution this term, possibly before the next elections, which are scheduled for November 2020. Though specific plans have not been made public -- even still little is known about what changes and how the NLD intends to do it.

Ms Suu Kyi began making preparations for the charter's change late last year in extreme secrecy: only a handful of the party's top leaders were privy to the internal discussions. She, though, also informed the army's commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

She was committed to do so by an initial agreement between the two, before her government took office in late March 2016, according to government insiders. She also agreed not to try to change the constitution within the first two years and that the army chief would be informed of the government's plans beforehand, according to sources privy to the discussions.

Now the parliamentary committee, formed four months ago, has finished its report and is scheduled to reveal its findings to MPs next month, when parliament returns from its recess. It will then be tasked with drafting an amendment bill, based on the parliamentary debate on its report. Although it finished its deliberations last week, its finding won't be made public until it presents them to parliament. In the meantime, there is gag order in place on all of its members.

The 45-member committee is made up of representatives of all the political parties and the military, mirroring the composition of the parliament. The military and pro-establishment party -- the Union Solidarity and Development Party -- objected to its formation, and initially refused to be part of the proceedings, arguing the committee was unconstitutional, but later backtracked and joined.

The military felt blind-sided by the move as they had originally understood the NLD intended to table amendments separately to parliament -- which meant that when individual constitutional amendments were proposed which affected the military, they could simply use their virtual veto on constitutional matters to vote them down, as these would need a 75% majority to pass. But Ms Suu Kyi's change of tactics threw them at first.

The panel reviewed all 15 chapters of the Constitution, along with five additional schedules relating to tax collection, the state and regional legislatures, self-administered regions and some other topics, according to its chairman, the speaker of the lower house, Myat Nyana Soe.

The formation of the amendment committee was the NLD's first official attempt to amend the constitution since it took power in 2016. Now the process is nearing the second stage -- a parliamentary debate on the amendments that will be suggested in the committee's report.

But it will also offer a preview of the end game. Some amendments can be approved by a simple majority in parliament: including giving greater autonomy to the regions and states, including the local parliaments directly electing the chief ministers instead of being appointed by the President, and will certainly be ratified.

But the contentious articles: including 436 which gives the military its 25% quota and virtual veto; the army chief's appointment of three ministries -- border affairs, defence and the home ministry; and a military-appointed vice president need to be passed by 75% of the parliamentarians and then ratified in a referendum by a majority of eligible voters.

On the face of it, it is an impossible task. Myanmar's current constitution is certainly a straightjacket for any civilian government. In her recent lecture "Challenges of Transition" at Charles University in Prague, Ms Suu Kyi said: "The 2008 Constitution prevents the emergence of a truly functional democratic system."

"Not surprisingly, judicial experts have pronounced that the Myanmar Constitution is about the most rigid in the world today."

But she may also have previewed her strategy to change the constitution, nevertheless. While opposition to constitutional reform is to be expected, the NLD has been encouraged by the people's interest in changing the constitution, she said reflectively. So seems the military's voting strength in parliament on these issues may still not prevent the NLD from going all out to change the constitution and reduce the army's political power.

Although senior NLD officials and MPs won't be drawn on what comes next, a strategy is beginning to emerge. Clearly the government is preparing to go to directly to the people to initiate these desired but controversial changes. It seems certain the referendum will coincide with the 2020 elections. This will have the added strategic advantage of mobilising the party's base and bringing them out to vote in the referendum and for NLD candidates in the elections -- countering the party's strategist greatest fear: voter apathy.

Although legal opinion is divided, some experts believe there are ambiguities in the constitution which allow for a parliament to directly vote on a referendum without first agreeing the amendments. In this case the government would only need a simple majority to get its way. This was certainly the view of the eminent lawyer Ko Ni who was assassinated two years ago -- one the first political assassination in Myanmar since Gen Aung San, the country's founder and Ms Suu Kyi's father was killed in 1947. Ko Ni was a close legal adviser to Ms Suu Kyi.

However, the issue remains how the military will react to the NLD's new political push. Many analysts expect tense discussions between the two sides, before the government resorts to a referendum. But these discussions will also certainly decide what amendments are eventually put to the people. There will have to be a process of "give and take". In the meantime, civilian-military relations -- already at their lowest-ever ebb -- will very fraught. Nevertheless, the government for the present is intent on completing the preparations to hold a referendum.

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Larry Jagan

Former BBC World Service News Editor

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News Editor for the region.

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