Political Parties and State Transformation in Myanmar

From 10-11th November, a conference will be held in Yangon on “Shaping Past, Present and Future: Political Parties and State Transformation in Myanmar”The conference is jointly organised by Initiative Austausch e.V., the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

I will be giving a talk on: “The Union Parliament, Political Parties and the Constitution: Why Myanmar’s Union Parliament is the Central Forum for Constitutional Debate and How this Conditions the Future Possibilities for Reform“. Political parties are now a vital part of the constitutional landscape in Myanmar. The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw has been a central forum for constitutional debate, culminating in the 2015 proposals for reform. To understand the importance of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and how it conditions the future possibilities for constitutional reform, it is necessary to first appreciate how the structure of parliament affects the role and function of political parties. In this presentation I will begin by setting out my novel argument that the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is in fact a tricameral parliament. There are four elements that set apart Myanmar’s parliamentary system from other bicameral systems that also have joint sittings. In most bicameral systems, joint sittings are held rarely, joint sittings are reserved for extraordinary issues; in federal systems, the two houses often serve asymmetrical terms; and the two houses maintain strong and distinct identities. In contrast, in Myanmar, joint sittings of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw are common and are held on a wide range of issues. Myanmar’s two houses serve symmetrical terms, and the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw has a corporate personality and represents the collective interests of the legislature against the executive. After establishing its tricameral nature, my presentation will focus on the importance of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw as the forum for debates on constitutional reform. Based on an extensive empirical review of parliamentary records from 2011-2015, and particularly the debates in 2014, I will consider who got to speak and what the key issues for debate focused on. I will identify which political parties dominated the debate, the extent to which gender played a role, and the disciplined and hierarchical nature of contributions from military representatives. I show how debate primarily focused on the following core provisions of the Constitution: the amendment clause (s436); the presidential requirement clause (s59f); the appointment of Union Ministers (s232) and Chief Ministers (261); and the three national causes, and the role of Tatmadaw in national politics (s6). Despite overwhelming sentiment from most political parties in favour of amending all of these provisions, data from parliamentary records clearly show that the military representatives had a disproportionate influence on the debate. In this regard, we should understand the military in parliament as a powerful and de facto political party, complicating an easy reading of the role of political parties in Myanmar. This talk is based on my book, The Constitution of Myanmar (Hart Publishing 2019) and on an ongoing project on The Dark Side of Constitutional Endurance.