Writing out the generals: Is Myanmar’s constitution up for change ahead of 2020 elections?

State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi at the European Parliament in 2013Photo:Claude Truong-Ngoc

Myanmar’s push to amend its military-backed Constitution forces the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi to balance demands by the country’s military and diverse ethnic groups.

By Skylar Lindsay

After years of calling for reform, Myanmar is pushing ahead with plans to amend the country’s military-drafted constitution. The Parliament’s Charter Amendment Committee will submit its first two amendment bills to the legislature at large on January 27.

The Myanmar military retains political power both because of the country’s ongoing armed ethnic conflicts and through statutes written into the Constitution. The 2008 Constitution reserves 25% of the seats in Parliament for military-appointed lawmakers, but it also requires the approval of 75% of Parliament in order to change the Constitution.

The military maintains unilateral control over all aspects of security and border affairs in Myanmar, defining many aspects of the government’s relationship with ethnic groups and regions.

In the 2015 general election, the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power promising to amend the 2008 Constitution. Five years later, the country is entering another election year—a critical test of how well the NLD has lived up to voters’ expectations.

Whether successful or not, the constitutional reform process is a key indicator of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s priorities and the strength of their ties with both ethnic political groups and the military. To push through any amendments, the NLD will need substantial support from ethnic groups and at least minimal consent from the military. The process will be an indicator of whether Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to maintain working relationships with the military have paid off. 

An infographic showing the process for constitutional change in Myanmar and the military's role in government

The push for a more democratic constitution has stumbled but remains strong

At the Hague, Aung San Suu Kyi denied that genocide occurred in Rakhine State and invoked a dubious domestic military justice system, but she has continued to push for constitutional reform to reduce the military’s power. The state counsellor told the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the charter is “a Constitution that needs to be amended to complete the process of democratisation.”

Speaking with Nikkei Asian Review in October, she said that charter reform was vital “in order to ensure that the sovereignty of the nation actually resides in the people.” The implied alternative—the current state of affairs in Myanmar—is that of sovereignty held at least in part by the military.

In the same interview, however, she said the challenge of constitutional reform “has to be overcome in a way that will not upset the unity and tranquillity of our country.” This is where the democratic leader’s politics have fallen out of favour. Aung San Suu Kyi has led the NLD to prioritize “sustainability over speed,” as she put it, in the charter reform process.

It’s not clear whether the new, sustainable version of democracy that the NLD is so focused on creating will work for the majority of Myanmar. The NLD has pushed a politics that places ethnic groups below the priority of creating a democratic union. 

It’s also unclear what “tranquillity” Aung San Suu Kyi is referring to, given the country’s multiple ongoing ethnic conflicts. But Aung San Suu Kyi has also been on the other side of this process: during the drafting of the 2008 Constitution, she was still under house arrest and the NLD boycotted the process. As for speed, the NLD is still moving faster than the military did with the 2008 Constitution, which took 14 years to pass.

Myanmar’s lower house of Parliament (The Pyithu Hluttaw)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The NLD’s progress has been hampered by the military’s effective veto in Parliament as well as its power to define the Union government’s relationship to ethnic groups in active conflict areas. In Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states, voters’ main point of contact with the Union is through the military. The NLD government’s inability to deliver peace, stability and basic services—or grant ethnic state governments the autonomy to do so—has led many ethnic parties’ to turn away from the NLD. The NLD needs the support of these minority groups to pass any constitutional amendments through the legislative bodies and will need their voters to turn out in the event the amendments are put to a public vote. 

Following the 2015 election, the NLD failed to form a coalition government with ethnic parties. It appointed NLD ministers for Rakhine and Shan states, though ethnic parties held majorities in the state parliaments. It also pushed to build statues of Burmese independence hero General Aung San in ethnic states, ignoring local opposition and public demonstrations.

The NLD’s failure to deliver autonomy and inability to deliver on election promises have caused, many ethnic voters to grow disillusioned with the party. 

Can the government write the military out of a military-backed constitution?

The current effort to amend the Constitution through Parliament formally began last January when the legislature approved the creation of the Charter Amendment Committee. At its inception, the committee consisted of 45 members from 14 political parties, as well as military-appointed lawmakers.

The committee completed its review of the Constitution for possible amendments in June and collected over 3,700 nominations for changes to the charter. The committee met on January 13 to whittle it down to 36 amendments. It will submit the proposed amendments to Parliament in two bills on January 23, at which time they will be made public. 

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech in 2012.
Htoo Tay Zar/Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of their splits with the NLD, ethnic political parties are lending their support to the constitutional reform process: the majority of the proposed amendments have come from ethnic parties, chiefly the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Mon National Party (MNP). Since submitting its proposals, however, the ANP has withdrawn its two members from the committee, saying it no longer believes in the NLD’s process for selecting which proposals to send to Parliament.

Among the proposed changes is an amendment to the section that guarantees the military 25% of parliamentary seats. In September, at a celebration of the 31st anniversary of the founding of the NLD, party spokesperson Dr Myo Nyunt said that Myanmar’s democracy was not yet “genuine,” as long as there are unelected officials in the Parliament.

The area of military representation in parliament generates the strongest agreement between ethnic parties and the NLD. But the SNLD and the NLD differ in their approach. The SNLD wants to repeal the statute outright, while the NLD is calling for a gradual reduction in the military’s representation in parliament to 15% of seats after the 2020 election, with the goal of making further reductions later. 

But pro-military lawmakers say the committee process violates the charter and have attempted to bring their own amendments directly to Parliament, including one provision that would allow the National Defence and Security Council to suspend Parliament. 

As Burmese historian Thant Myint-U writes in his new work The Hidden History of Burma, Myanmar is very much a union that its politicians and people have to work to maintain. In the case of constitutional reform, Parliament faces the challenge of convincing the military that the civilian government can maintain the Union without the military’s involvement in politics. The military has said publicly that it is willing to withdraw from politics when the country is politically and economically stable.

“Without military approval, we can go nowhere. Despite the current efforts pushing for constitutional reform, I expect only a few changes, not involving the crucial provisions that are important to building a democratic federal Union, will be able to pass before the current parliamentary term ends,” Ko Mya Aye told The Irrawaddy recently.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have been forced to work with the military’s heavy-handed presence in politics for five years. As the election approaches, the constitutional reform process will show whether their efforts have been enough to bring the country closer to full civilian government.

About the Author

Skylar Lindsay
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer focused on development, the environment and conflict, primarily in Southeast Asia.