‘Syndrome 2020’ unleashes a new bid to change the constitution

‘Syndrome 2020’ unleashes a new bid to change the constitution

Larry Jagan,

Myanmar’spro-democracy forces have launched a new bid to change the country’s constitution. With some 18 months left before the 2020 elections, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has initiated a process in parliament it hopes will amend the military-drafted constitution and give the party an important campaigning issue. It is the latest evidence that the country has been plunged into “Syndrome 2020” in the lead up to the next elections: and it is going to dominate everything till then, but will also help clarify the differences between the contenders.

But above all it may increase the country’s political instability as the area of civilian-military relations will be starkly highlighted. Relations between the army and the NLD-government were rock bottom some six months ago, but this move to amend the constitution may indicate that the two major forces in the government administration have sought and achieved some form of rapprochement. Of course thee relations are finely balanced and would not take much to cause a renewed deterioration.

The NLD’s decision to seek constitutional change through the parliament places an added strain on the peace process – which involves ‘negotiations’ between the military and the government on one hand, and the leaders of the rebel ethnic groups, some of whom have already signed a national ceasefire agreement. The NCA is a prerequisite for discussions between the three groups about the country’s political future, which would end in constitutional change: with a democratic federal state the end game.

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The latest move was originally proposed a month ago and was adopted by Myanmar’s parliament in a vote to establish a new preparatory committee to consider amendments to the country’s military-drafted constitution. Although it was a foregone decision, with the NLD’s domination of parliament, there was far from a consensus backing the committee’s formation – with a significant section of the lawmakers abstaining or boycotting the vote, including the military members of parliament.

The current constitution – the country’s third — was overwhelmingly approved in a sham referendum in 2008 and gives the armed forces a dominant political role. Changing the constitution was the NLD’s key election platform in 2015 – along with ‘rule of law’ and national reconciliation.For their part the military have steadfastly defended the constitution as a key guarantee of the country’s stability.

The NLD’s slogans during the campaign were built around ideas of rule of law, national reconciliation and constitutional change. It was this which also appealed to the strategically important ethnic communities who have often borne the brunt of the previous military regime’s autocratic rule.

These catchphrases helped the NLD – and more importantly its leader Aung San Suu Kyi — convince many ethnic voters to support the NLD in 2015and help them secure their landslide victory. But of course, many in the country’s ethnic areas have subsequently become disillusioned with the NLD government’s failure to improve the situation in the ethnic areas and introduce constitutional change. It is this marked disappointed – very evident in last November’s byelections — that the NLD leadership is trying to tackle.

“It’s the NLD keeping its election promise,” senior NLD MP, Bo BoOo excitedly told SAM after the vote to create the committee. But he admitted that the expected changes were unlikely to affect the military’s central role in Myanmar’s political system. Crucial constitutional issues like the military’s role in parliament will only be tackled after the next elections, he predicted.

Myanmar’s military carefully designed the constitution so that changing it would be immensely difficult. According to the constitution 25% of the seats in parliament’s lower and upper houses are reserved for military appointees, with the rest elected. A proposal to amend the charter only requires the support of 20% of lawmakers to be considered, but needs a 75% majority to change the constitution: and in some cases would also necessitate a referendum.

This is an almost impossible task that would need some support from the military to succeed. With the military bloc of 25% voting en masse, they have a de facto veto over constitutional changes that threaten the military’s power. Privately senior NLD leaders accept that this clause in the constitution needs to be changed before any debate or move to change the constitutional can be meaningful – but at present that is a distant hope.

The NLD leaders have been plotting this move for several months, according to senior party. It became crucial in the party’s strategists’ minds, after the disastrous results of the last November’s by-elections which reflected the NLD’s declined electoral popularity, especially in the ethnic areas.

But only a very small clique at the top of the party hierarchy were privy to the discussions and strategy, and especially the timing of the move to create a parliamentary committee to amend the constitution.

“This move makes our party relevant again to the people, and reignites our support base, as it reflects the widespread popular feeling in the community: the need for change,” said Ye Min Oo a senior member of the NLD’s economic committee. He admits though that he does not know what parts of the constitution that will be targeted for change. “We’ll just have to wait and see,” he mused but everything should become clearer in the next few weeks, he mused.

So far little has been made public about the committee’s deliberations, though one of the committee’s leading members told reporters recently that a draft of proposed changes – which would then have to be voted on by parliament, would be announced within the next five months.

It is understood the committee is slowly reviewing the charter chapter by chapter, starting with the 48 Basic Principles of the Union in the first Chapter, many of which the military regard as sacrosanct. A spokesman for the military MPs, Major General Than Soe told a press conference in the capital Naypyitaw recently that the army would not allow these ‘basic principles’ to be changed. When the military spokesman confirmed that the military MPs would take their place in the panel, he warned that they would oppose any changes to the “essence of the constitution”.

Since the NLD first tabled the motion to form the committee to discuss constitutional amendments, there has been mixed messages from the military’s contingent in parliament. Originally the military MPs reacted stoically when the motion to form the committee was first introduced, clearly waiting for instructions from above, according to seasoned observers who attended the parliamentary session. They stood up in unison when the motion was put to a vote, in protest. Then they threatened to boycott the committee — which was to have military representatives: the composition of the committee is to be based on the membership of the parliament based on proportional representation – and then relented and joined the committee’s deliberations.

But while the timing of the NLD move may have been highly secretive, the top military brass were aware of the government’s intention to push for constitutional amendments, according to government insiders. Although no direct talks seem to have taken place on the issue between the country’s civilian leader, the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the army commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, there has been a communication channel between them.

Although the army top brass were aware of the NLD’s proposed move and were on board, according to senior military sources, they were blindsided by the way it was presented. The original plan was to table proposed amendments for individual discussion and vote in the parliament. The idea of a committee – though a microcosm of the parliament –was anathema, and a surprise to them.

This is obviously where there is some differences between the two sides. The commander-in-chief wants to be able to instruct his ‘representatives’ on each proposal and maintain their political line. The fear in the army hierarchy is that discussions behind closed might give rise to some unexpected surprises.

For Aung San Suu Kyi part, according to foreign diplomats who know her well, she understands parliament as it is currently set up does not allow for detailed discussions on such significant issues, and is a rubber stamp. The hope is that through the committee’s discussions the NLD might be able to build a broader consensus behind the need to change the constitution.

The military wants a broader approach – not restricted to parliamentarians, which they believe is unrepresentative of the public – to review the constitution. Forty-five people [the number in the committee] is not enough to reconsider the charter and the process unfair,”

Major General Tun Tun Nyi told reporters in Yangon recently. The army spokesman

said the army is not opposed to amendments to the charter but “we are rejecting trying to change the constitution this way,” he added.

Some analysts believe this ‘stand-off’ between the army and the NLD represents a worrying deterioration of relations between the army and the civilian government, but in reality it seems to be a blip. In the last few months there have been signs of a thaw in relations between the army and the civilian government that augurs well for future relations. The General Administration Department (GAD), which appoints civil servants from the national administration down to the village level, was transferred to state counsellor’s office — Ministry of the Office of the Union Government — in December.

Before that it was under the control of the Home Ministry – one of the three government portfolios controlled by military appointed ministers — bringing it under nominal civilian control for the first time. This change has been on the cards since the NLD victory, when HantharMyint — a senior party official and its key strategists told SAM at the time

Although on the face of it, it is a small change – it is a n extremely important change beyond being merely symbolic – representing an extension of civilian authority control, though tempered by the fact that those officials appointed by the military will remain in their respective offices for the time being. More critically the significance of the move was the military’s agreement to the change – albeit tacitly.

But this not the only sign of the thaw in civilian-military relations. Before the NLD initiated this latest effort to amend the constitution, the army chief clearly indicated that the army was not opposed to changing the constitution per say. A view reiterated by Brigadier-General Maung Maung, a senior military official in the parliament, after the vote on forming the committee.

“We don’t say not to amend,” he told reporters. “They can amend but they must do it according to procedure … What kind of law will that committee analyze? How broad is the authority of the committee?”

Clearly the army is open to some form of constitutional change. For the present the military will wait and see what is proposed before they show their hand, said a former senior military officer and advisor to the national defence college on condition of anonymity.

Many western diplomats and Myanmar analysts believe that any NLD move to amend the charter and diminish the military’s political power could upset that delicate balance and put the civilian government on a collision with the top brass. But much will depend on the nature and breadth of the proposed changes, and the commander-in-chief’s assessment of their potential implications for stability.

This delicate balance between the civilian government and the military may be tested, but it is more likely that in fact the amendments will have broad agreement across the political spectrum. What is clear from some NLD MPs, the party does not want to confront the army in the run up to the elections. The suggested amendments are not likely to be disruptive.

Informed government sources suggest that the key amendment will be to increase decentralisation or devolution to the states and regions. That would give governments in the ethnic areas increased autonomy, including allowing the regional parliaments to directly elect their Chief Ministers after the 2020 elections.

This will certainly appeal to the ethnic communities, and while it will have broad if not unanimous support in parliament, the NLD hopes to take credit for the initiative and boost their waning support in these regions. But it is a far cry from Federalism, which is the ethnic communities’ main demand. Moves in that direction will certainly be deferred until after the next elections.

The debate over constitution change is set to continue, and the formation of this committee is only the first salvo in the battle to reform the constitution and increase democracy.Aung Suu Kyi has long spoken of the goal of reforming the constitution and returning the army to the barracks as part of a democratic transition after more than fifty years of strict military rule.

“The completion of our democratic transition must necessarily involve the completion of a truly democratic constitution,” she said during a forum in Singapore last August.But the military has for decades seen itself as the only institution capable of preventing the disintegration of the ethnically diverse country, and has stressed the importance of its constitutional oversight of the political system.

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Many twists and turns remain on the road to a more democratic constitution. Now there seems to be a parallel process: in parliament involving the MPs and the peace process involving the government, the military and the ethnic rebel groups. In recent weeks there has been renewed efforts by the government to kick-start this process. There are hope that it can be revived and the next peace conference – the fourth Panglong meeting – can be held within the next few months.

The long-term hope is that the military will accept these popular demands for a democratic federal state. The army has reminded the civilian government – and the public – that peace tops their agenda, and they see the need for a continued strong political role for the army until the armed ethnic groups can no longer threaten the state with armed resistance. For that the army wants all the armed ethnic groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement by 2020.

“We are not asking the groups to immediately disarm, demobilise and reintegrate upon signing the truce,” said a military spokesman, Major General Soe Naing Oo. They will be allowed to keep their weapons, but should not use them, while a joint a solution is sought, he said. These are in fact the terms of the NCA. But the issue is that the second step is then the discussion of creating a democratic and federal state. And this won’t happen until after the 2020 elections, no matter how much progress there is in the peace process.

So the 2020 elections will determine when and how this progresses. Little headway though is likely to be made in the meantime. Clearly national reconciliation and constitutional change will dominate the electioneering, and form the basis of the NLD’s campaign pledges. And Aung San Suu Kyi’s vision of future Myanmar – increasing the country’s democratisation with all that means, including the military returning to the barracks and relinquishing all their political roles – with provide the guiding strategy. In the meantime, ‘Syndrome 2020’ will dominate everything until the elections and the formation of the next government.