Constitutional reform in Myanmar: A move towards peace?

Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party is making a new push to reform Myanmar’s constitution. The move may help reduce the military’s power, allowing the NLD to advance the peace process before the 2020 elections.

By Skylar Lindsay

Last week in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party took a landmark step in pushing to reform Myanmar’s constitution. The country’s NLD-dominated parliament voted 369 to 17 in favour of forming a committee that will propose reforms to the constitution.

Military members of the parliament boycotted the vote, as the committee will likely focus on reforms that reduce the military’s power over the civilian government. The parliament will discuss the specifics of the committee’s mandate later in February.

Constitutional reform was a key part of the NLD’s platform in the 2015 elections. With elections coming up in 2020, the NLD is looking to rally support, especially after it won only 54% of the contested seats in by-elections last November.

The NLD will help its cause if it can pass constitutional reforms, but it is yet to specify what aspects of the constitution it hopes to change.

Constitutional reform could take control of peace process negotiations out of military hands

Under the roadmap from the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), constitutional reform is a key step in achieving peace. The NCA roadmap calls for the central government to reach nationwide accords with the warring parties and then amend the constitution to reflect these accords.

Since 2008, many of the ethnic armed groups have objected to the way the constitution enshrines the military’s power within the civilian government. The 21 or more ethnic armed groups who are in conflict with the military say that negotiations with the civilian government are fruitless, as the military still has the final say. At the same time, attempts to negotiate with the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, are marred by a lack of trust.

The constitution gives the military power to veto any attempts to change the constitution by reserving 25% of parliament for unelected members of the military while also stipulating that any amendments to the constitution must be endorsed by 75% of the parliament. This margin didn’t apply to the recent vote as the proposal only created a committee to pursue reforms.

The constitution also places the military in control of the Home, Defence and Border Affairs Ministries, the civil service, tax collection, and land registration. Shan political analyst Sai Wansai suggests that this allows the Tatmadaw to maintain a “‘state within a state’, continuing its self-appointed role as the sole saviour of the country’s unity.”

Past attempts at reform have struggled despite popular support

Until the vote on January 29, the NLD hadn’t made any progress on its promises of constitutional reform, in part due to the intimidating prospect of negotiating with the military.

NLD members have in the past made small attempts to change the portion of the constitution that grants the military its veto power, Article 436. A legal adviser to Suu Kyi, U Ko Ny, had called for constitutional reform but was shot dead at the Yangon International Airport in January 2017. No one has tried to prove that his murder was connected to his attempts to reform the military’s outsized political power.

Polling as far back as 2013 indicated that 97% of Myanmar’s population supports changing the constitution. The current constitution was drafted by the military government in 2008 and passed by a popular vote in the wake of the devastation from Cyclone Nargis. Independent estimates suggest Nargis killed over 130,000 people but the government pushed ahead with the vote and still claimed a turnout rate of 98%, with 92% voting yes.

In 2013, under then-President Thein Sein, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) created a committee that proposed some reforms, including a revision of Article 436, but the military members of parliament rejected nearly every point when it came to a vote in June 2015.

Former president Thein Sein.
Photo Credit: IRRI/Wikimedia Commons

Stronger competition from ethnic political parties is putting new pressure on the NLD

The results of last November’s by-elections show the NLD’s popularity may be waning and the party needs to rally support. The significance of the by-elections shouldn’t be overblown, as voter turnout was low – most constituencies showed a turnout rate of only 30-40%. But the NLD can’t rely on the support of ethnic political parties.

“The ethnic political parties are better organized now and they don’t have much faith in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, although this doesn’t mean that they won’t cooperate within the parliament,” Sai Wansai told ASEAN Today.

Following the 2015 elections, the NLD appointed chief ministers from their own party in every ethnic state, reneging on their election promises to let the people choose state ministers. Moves like this are exacerbating conflict with ethnic armed groups such as the Arakan Army.

The biggest effect of constitutional reform would help the NLD regain the support it needs from the ethnic political parties, though a more realistic possibility would be an anti-Tatmadaw coalition in which ethnic parties work with the NLD in the new government.

Suu Kyi thinks China has the answer to securing constitutional reform

The military’s opposition to any constitutional amendments represents a major roadblock for the NLD’s moves towards reform. Suu Kyi will need to do more to push the military to permit reform and avoid a repeat of the USDP’s failed attempt in 2013-14. The state counsellor is turning to Beijing for assistance. China may have the clout to push the Tatmadaw into complying with reform, and Suu Kyi sees this.

China has regularly blocked the UN Security Council from taking more decisive action to condemn the Tatmadaw or hold it accountable for crimes against the Rohingya and others in Rakhine State. This is not because China holds any affinity for the generals – it has more to do with China’s vested interest in keeping the UNSC’s hands out of its own domestic human rights abuses, including the imprisonment of as many as 2 million or more Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

Suu Kyi has recently taken a stronger interest in helping to facilitate Chinese initiatives inside Myanmar. In November 2018, the government created a steering committee to implement projects for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with Suu Kyi as chair.

Since the NLD created the committee in November 2018, China has renewed its efforts to build the 6,000-megawatt Myitsone hydropower mega-project in Kachin State and Myanmar government officials have reopened negotiations around the project, despite having previously suspended the project seven years ago in response to popular opposition. At the same time, a Chinese government agency is now advising the NLD government on the drafting of a new white paper on national hydropower policy.

China would also benefit greatly if Myanmar could achieve sustainable peace. It would bring stability to the ever-increasing number of BRI projects in the country, including the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone and deep-water port project in Rakhine State, oil and gas pipelines from the Bay of Bengal into China’s Yunnan Province, and the China-Myanmar high-speed rail project.

But Suu Kyi is brokering a risky deal. The Myitsone dam is a flashpoint and reviving the project will turn local communities, Kachin political parties, and much of civil society further against the NLD. However, Beijing is a powerful ally to have in negotiations with the Tatmadaw and could provide the necessary leverage for securing meaningful reform.

Promises of peace were key to the NLD’s platform in 2015. Suu Kyi’s inaction on the Rohingya crisis rightfully cast her commitment to peace into doubt. Suu Kyi and her party are working to pass reforms that will curry favour ahead of the elections, but to stand on a political platform dedicated to bringing peace to Myanmar, the NLD will need to use the big gesture of constitutional reform to show it is making progress towards peace.

Freeing the civilian government from the yoke of the Tatmadaw is not without risk for the NLD – ethnic groups and other critics will be watching carefully to see if the NLD follows through on their promises.