Road to constitutional amendment in Myanmar going nowhere

Since Myanmar’s Joint Parliamentary Constitution Review Committee submitted its report to the Union Parliament on 31 January 2014, the constitutional amendment saga has taken another twist.

The Committee was given the task of reviewing the 2008 Constitution, which had been drafted by the previous military junta. It was required to make recommendations to the parliament, yet it ultimately avoided this responsibility. Many activists now agree that the amendment process is not genuine.

Yet public confidence in the process was shaken when the Committee’s initial deadline to submit its recommendations to the parliament, 31 December 2013, was extended to 31 January 2014. For many democracy activists, especially the older generation, this announcement heightened fears of prolonged constitutional discussions leading to negligible outcomes, like in the past.

When the Committee was established in 2013, there was some scepticism mixed with a glimmer of hope. Confidence in the process grew as a clear timeframe was set, making it possible that any proposals might have time to go through the necessary approval process before the 2015 elections.
A call for public submissions was even issued. This generated a flurry of constitutional campaigns and conversations across the country as political parties, social organisations, ethnic groups and religious groups held discussions and finalised submissions to the Committee. Reports suggest that the Committee received a huge number of submissions.

The constitutional review process has also been marked by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s failed request for an audience with the president. In November 2013 and on several occasions since then, she has called for a meeting with the president, the speaker of the lower house and the commander-in-chief. She has insisted that this is a necessary step to discuss the constitutional amendments.

The Committee’s report appears to have confirmed the fears of sceptics. It simply collated data on the number of provisions that were suggested to be amended and those that should stay the same. The Committee failed to come to any conclusions on the substance of the Constitution’s text — that is, which provisions should be amended and how.

The most controversial aspect of the report was that it noted that there were three key aspects of the Constitution that should not be amended. This was based on what appears to have been a petition signed by 106,102 people, although it does not confirm the source of this petition.

The first was the role of the military. The report noted that the petition wanted the military to retain its role in politics (and as the country’s armed forces). It also noted that the petition’s signatories were in favour of retaining the section that grants immunity from prosecution for past and present members of government.

The second affirmation was of the section on presidential requirements, which currently does not allow a person to be nominated if his or her spouse or children ‘owe allegiance to a foreign power’. The report noted that the petition did not want this changed. This would mean that Aung San Suu Kyi could not be nominated by the presidential electoral college after the 2015 elections.

Third, the same 106,102 people of the petition recommended that the provisions on the constitutional amendment process be retained. This process requires 75 percent approval of parliament, and for some provisions also requires more than 50 percent of eligible voters at a national referendum. These provisions would remain an obstacle to be overcome for any future amendments.

Yet this alleged petition has been heavily criticised and suspicions have been raised about its validity.

Some activists are now drawing parallels between the current situation and the lead up to the approval of the 1974 Constitution. In the early 1970s, Ne Win’s socialist regime claimed to have widely consulted the people and gathered a large number of signatures in support of the draft constitution. This alleged show of support for the constitution was used to justify its approval, yet it only entrenched another 14 years of Ne Win’s rule.
Where will Myanmar’s road to constitutional amendment lead today? After the Committee’s report was delivered, on 3 February the parliament established a committee for its implementation. Consisting of 30 members of parliament, this new committee must now make a final report on constitutional amendments.

Yet if this second committee proceeds on the basis of the validity of the first report, the road to amendment will not see any reduction in the role of the military in politics. Nor will it promote greater fairness in the presidential nomination process. This has serious implications for the elections in 2015, and suggests that the reform process itself has stalled.
This article first appeared on 27 March 2014 in the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘On the Edge in Asia’. Republished in The Glocal