Friday, September 22, 2017

NLD rejects rival’s proposal on constitution referendum

The National League for Democracy has ruled out a proposal from a senior member of the rival Union Solidarity and Development Party that a referendum on amending the constitution be conducted concurrently with the 2015 election.

A USDP member protests against constitutional change in Nay Pyi Taw on May 28. (Hsu Hlaing Htun/The Myanmar Times)A USDP member protests against constitutional change in Nay Pyi Taw on May 28. (Hsu Hlaing Htun/The Myanmar Times)

USDP central executive committee member Thura U Aung Ko told reporters on May 28 that holding the referendum at the same time would save time, money and human resources. For amendments to be approved, many sections of the constitution require not only the support of 75 percent of MPs but also a majority at a national referendum.

“If we hold a referendum … it will cost hundreds of millions of kyat and take a lot of time,” said Thura U Aung Ko, the lower house representative for Kanpetlet.

“But there is an easy way to know whether our people want to make the amendments or not: Add a box to polling booths for the general election that will be held at the end of 2015,” he said, adding that it was his personal view and not necessarily that of the USDP.

However, NLD member U Win Myint, the party’s representative for Pathein, said the referendum should be held separately – and well in advance of the election.

“An election is an election and a referendum is a referendum. They are different and we can’t hold it in the same time … We can’t mix them. His suggestion is impossible,” he said.

“The referendum must also be held no later than six months before the election. The election date will depend on when the referendum takes place.”

Another NLD member, who asked not to be named, was similarly critical of the proposal.

“His suggestion seems like an attempt to delay the referendum. We can wait for [the election],” he said.

The proposal comes as the NLD launches a public campaign, together with the 88 Generation student group, to build public support for constitutional change, particularly to section 436, which gives the military veto powers over reform of the constitution.

The first rallies were held in Yangon and Mandalay on May 17 and 18, while on May 27 a petition was launched.

At the same time, a 31-member parliamentary body, the Constitution Amendment Implementation Committee, is considering possible changes to the constitution. Formed by Thura U Shwe Mann on February 3, it has been instructed to submit a bill to MPs for consideration no later than six months before next year’s election. Recent discussions have focused almost exclusively on section 436, with members telling The Myanmar Times they have agreed “in principle” to reduce the threshold for constitutional change from 75pc to 66pc, leaving a window for changes to be pushed through without military support.

While all major political groupings – even the military – appear to agree on the need for at least some constitutional change, there are deep divisions over what change is needed.

During the press conference, Thura U Aung Ko, who leads an important judicial reform committee, said many in his own party consider him a “traitor” because of his public comments on the need to amend the constitution.

Within the USDP, only chairman and parliamentary speaker Thura U Shwe Mann and himself were committed to amending the constitution.

He said he supported change because it was necessary to end the country’s long-running conflicts with armed ethnic groups.

“If the constitution is not amended, we will face many difficulties in signing a nationwide peace accord, even if we manage to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement,” he said.

But he also warned that the government could create a political crisis if it ignores growing calls from both domestic forces and the international community for constitutional change.

Parliamentarian U Khine Maung Yi said it was essential that section 436 is changed and, eventually, the military removed from parliament.

“Military MPs never ask questions in the hluttaw and never submit proposals. They … never vote with their own desire, just as a group. They are one vote and it is not inconsistent with democratic principles. Each MP must have the right to vote freely and section 436 should be removed from constitution,” he said. – Translation by Thiri Min Htun