Political Stability

Amending Myanmar’s Military-Drafted Constitution: The Prime Agendas and Actors

02 Aug, 2019    ·   5607

Angshuman Choudhury contextualises recent developments pertaining to the constitution amendment process currently underway in Myanmar.

Angshuman Choudhury
Angshuman Choudhury
Senior Researcher, and Coordinator, Southeast Asia Research Programme (SEARP)

On 30 July, the union parliament of Myanmar formally initiated a debate on amending the military-drafted 2008 constitution, two weeks after a Charter Amendment Committee (CAC) submitted 3765 recommendations. Formed through a parliamentary vote in February 2019, the CAC comprises 45 members, including representatives from 14 political parties that have lawmakers in the parliament, and the Tatmadaw (military).

Amending the 2008 constitution, from which the Tatmadaw derives its political authority, was one of the key promises of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) when it came to power in 2015. With the next general election fast approaching, the NLD now appears eager to push it through the parliament.

But, the process is complicated and has the potential to unsettle the brittle civil-military equation in Myanmar, which could in turn trigger massive political instability. That said, it is a pivotal step in the ongoing process of democratic transition that could contribute towards consolidating the nascent multi-party system in Myanmar.

Political Differences
There is a general consensus across the civilian political spectrum in Myanmar that the 2008 constitution needs to be amended and that the Tatmadaw’s role in political affairs, reduced. However, there are critical differences between various factions on the overall pace and scope of this process.

Despite initiating the amendment process and having the highest number of representatives in the CAC (19), the NLD proposed only 109 amendments—a mere 2.9 per cent of the total. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD)—one of the oldest critics of the Tatmadaw (and an NLD ally)—proposed the most number (1112; 29.5 per cent) despite having merely two representatives in the CAC. The SNLD was trailed by the Arakan National Party (ANP) and Mon National Party (MNP) who proposed 858 (22.8 per cent) and 640 (17 per cent) recommendations, respectively.

A majority of the recommendations (1196) sought to amend the executive arm of the union, followed by the legislative (859) and judiciary (632). The NLD is particularly eager to change Article 59(f) that bars individuals with foreign-born family (read Aung San Suu Kyi) from becoming the president, and Article 436, which stipulates a special majority vote (over 75 per cent) to amend important articles of the constitution.

The above data shows that the NLD is more cautious about the amendment process than some of the main ethnic parties. Its delicate relationship with the military as the federal ruling party compels it to project a calculated middle-ground position and propose just enough recommendations that allow it to demonstrate political will and test the waters but not unsettle the Tatmadaw leadership. The ethnic parties, on the other hand, are willing to push the line farther and change a bulk of the charter. As representatives of minority populations who have faced the full brunt of the military’s majoritarian and authoritarian policies, they are eager to see the generals stripped off their political power without delay. In fact, many of them want to wholly revoke the military’s 25 per cent reserved parliamentary seat share immediately. The NLD, on the other hand, seeks a progressive retrenchment—15 per cent for the 2020 election and then a reduction of 5 per cent before every subsequent election.

The emerging political divide is further sharpened by the ascendant aspirations of smaller ethnic parties to broaden their voter bases and reclaim lost ground from the NLD in their own regions. This was reflected in the recent statement passed by the ‘ethnic-based’ SNLD to reframe itself as a ‘state-based’ party.

In all, the amendment process is a double-edged sword—it could disturb old alliances and create new ones, resulting in political uncertainty and policy paralysis in the short term. But, in the medium-to-long term, it can bring nuance to the multi-party system by driving regional parties to assert their own agendas with much more specificity. Ultimately, this will only offer voters a much more diverse set of political choices and give greater political agency to marginalised demographies.

The Civil-military Equation
Unsurprisingly, the military did not submit a single recommendation despite having eight representatives in the CAC and has withdrawn from the parliamentary debates. Needless to say, it does not want to relinquish political power by lending unconditional support to the process. In this, they have a decisive advantage in the form of an effective veto in the parliament—passing amendments requires over 75 per cent votes, and the military occupies 25 per cent of the seats.

But, the military too is treading a middle ground, not unlike the NLD. There is considerable popular and political support for the amendment process, including amongst the majority Bamar segments, which puts the Tatmadaw in an uncomfortable position. Consequently, the Tatmadaw has not rejected the process explicitly, but has criticised its structure. In February, it stated that the formation of the CAC was a “breach of constitutional rules,” but also noted that it is not against the amendment process. A month later, the deputy commander-in-chief said that any changes to the charter should be based on strict legal principles, and not just majority sentiments.

The Tatmadaw will do everything to stall the process in the pre-voting stage, lest the parliamentary debates become a nationwide movement. This includes encouraging its political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to mobilise popular opposition—something that the military itself cannot do openly. The recent USDP rally in Mandalay—where the amendment process was portrayed as a threat to the “three main national causes” (“strong Union, national solidarity, and sovereignty”)—was case-in-point. The military could also use the ongoing armed conflicts in the country, especially in Rakhine State, to strengthen its position.

Despite the scant likelihood of the amendments passing the parliamentary vote due to the military’s veto, the sensitivity of the entire process, combined with the Tatmadaw’s staunch agenda of self-preservation, forebodes volatile times ahead. The threat of physical violence against pro-amendment factions, too, remains. Much would depend on the finer negotiations between the two main camps—civilian and military—and between the various political parties.