Friday, August 18, 2017

Constitutional reform on backburner for now

Politicians and analysts are worried the National League for Democracy is dropping the ball on constitutional reform after Speaker U Win Myint indicated a reshuffling of priorities.

Speaker U Win Myint talks to reporters on June 10. Photo: Pyae Thet Phyo / The Myanmar TimesSpeaker U Win Myint talks to reporters on June 10. Photo: Pyae Thet Phyo / The Myanmar Times

At a press conference held in parliament on June 10, the Speaker said the government can only begin to address constitutional amendment after national peace and reconciliation are achieved.

“Amending the constitution will not be successful if we attempt to implement changes without first securing national reconciliation. After we better understand each other following national reconciliation and the peace process, the mission to amend the constitution will succeed,” he told reporters.

He added he understands that the sooner constitutional change happens, the sooner the people will enjoy the benefits, but the groundwork of a successful peace process needs to be laid as a matter of course. “I can say that within this government’s term we are still trying to amend the constitution.”

Reforming the military-drafted 2008 constitution has long been a party mantra, one that featured prominently at rallies throughout the country during last year’s election campaign season. But while the party now holds the majority of seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, it is no closer to defeating the military’s 25 percent veto bloc that effectively shot down previous attempts at charter reform.

In 2014, then-opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that without constitutional amendment, the democratic transition only constitutes “window-dressing”. Later that same year, the NLD began one of several attempts to force the issue of constitutional amendment through harnessing public support. The party partnered with the 88 Generation to launch a petition calling for changes to section 436, which gives the military a veto over charter changes, and section 59(f), which bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. More than 5 million signatures were gathered and submitted to parliament, but ultimately were shot down.

Last year, the NLD proposed changes through a constitutional amendment committee set up by then-Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann, but the two amendment bills put forward were blocked by the military.

Both President U Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had again called attention to the pressing need for constitutional change in speeches soon after taking office.

Political commentator U Yan Myo Thein said yesterday the NLD-backed government is taking a backward approach if it believes a peace deal could come before charter reform. “I think U Win Myint’s comment is not acceptable. Everyone understands that a federal Union cannot be implemented without changing the 2008 constitution as the current charter is the main cause of instability in our country,” he said.

He added that the NLD should discuss ways to address charter reform at the 21st-century Panglong Conference to be held at the end of July with ethnic group leaders.

“Ethnic armed forces and ethnic parties will not agree to a peace deal without the guarantee of constitutional change,” he said. “So [simultaneously] working with parliament to change the constitution will be vital.”

U Aye Maung, chair of the Arakan National Party, warned that the NLD’s back-pedalling on constitutional reform priorities could enflame fighting in ethnic minority areas.

U Ye Htun, an outgoing MP from the Shan National Development Party, told The Myanmar Times yesterday that if the NLD tries to force reform through parliament, it will likely meet the same resistance and eventual failure that ex-Speaker and former ruling party leader Thura U Shwe Mann encountered, with similar deteriorating relations with the military to be expected also.

“The NLD understands they cannot effectively change the constitution without prior military agreement, so they want to build trust with the military and then try to change the charter as the next step,” he said. “But both the military and the NLD need to understand they must change the charter if they are really serious about getting genuine peace and moving toward a federal Union.”