Photo: Crowds await the beginning of a rally calling for the amendment of Myanmar’s constitution in Yangon (Alex Bookbinder).
Myanmar’s opposition leaders challenge military’s constitutional privileges
Less than a week after the devastating landfall of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, Myanmar’s military rulers pressed ahead with a plebiscite on a new constitution, which went into effect in 2010, following the first nationwide polls in 20 years.
Although Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), entered the formal political process following by-elections in 2012, constitutional barriers remain to her standing for the presidency in nationwide elections to be held next year. Moreover, provisions in the constitution assure the military’s perpetual dominance over political life in Myanmar, a fact the opposition is now openly keen to correct.
Suu Kyi, along with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group, led by former student activists instrumental in spearheading nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, led huge rallies in Myanmar’s two largest cities last weekend, calling for the removal of Article 436 of the constitution, which gives the army veto power over constitutional reforms.
“People say the country is on the path towards democracy, but as far as I am concerned, if they want the people’s confidence, why do they [the military] refuse to allow the constitution to be amended?” Suu Kyi told a 15,000-strong crowd in Yangon on Saturday. The rally in Yangon also marked the formal start of a joint NLD-88 Generation signature campaign calling for Article 436 to be removed.
The campaign, which has built slowly since February, marks the first time the 88 Generation and the NLD have formally cooperated. Their newfound unity may very well be borne out of a sense of urgency: the rallies are the opposition’s most aggressive challenge yet to the military, intended to up the political ante before next year’s polls.
Suu Kyi’s previous efforts at constitutional reform focused on amending Article 59F, which bars her from the presidency owing to the British citizenship of her late husband and two children. But this latest campaign marks an escalation of the rhetoric coming out of the pro-democracy camp as the 2015 election approaches, because it targets a provision in the constitution much closer to the heart of Myanmar’s current political order.
“If we compare the 2008 constitution with others around the world, Article 436 is the problem,” U Win Myint, a lawyer and a member of the NLD’s central committee, said at the rally. “It maintains that the army will take the main role in national politics. It says that the head of state should have military experience, which means the President of the Union of Burma will be a military man.”
Article 436 stipulates that 75 per cent of parliamentarians in both the upper and lower houses must vote in favour of constitutional reforms for them to pass. But 25 per cent of the seats in Myanmar’s parliament are reserved for unelected military officers, making it highly implausible that legislation that jeopardises the military’s pre-eminent position will gain traction.
“The people should be allowed to determine their own future through their MPs, but for now, only the military officers can decide,” Suu Kyi said. “I love the army, as I have said frequently… and I want the army to have dignity and be loved by the people. To improve the army’s dignity, it needs to remove section 436. They should join our signature campaign, because it reflects the will of the people.”
The government has not welcomed the opposition’s efforts. Following an earlier rally held in the Irrawaddy Delta town of Maubin, the chief minister of Irrawaddy Region, Thein Aung, told the media that constitutional reform “should be based on how much damage it can cause to the country, the public, the economy and politics.” Last Thursday, Thein Sein maintained that constitutional reform was unnecessary, and warned that reform would “hurt the people,” urging “all people and monks who love this country to protect it from instability.”
As the 2015 elections approach, it remains to be seen how the military will respond to the opposition’s increasingly vocal calls for it to submit to civilian oversight. “This current campaign is certainly more confrontational than previous ones, as the stakes are much higher, but that indicates the outcome [constitutional reform] will be even less likely than before,” said David Mathieson, the senior researcher on Myanmar at Human Rights Watch. “There is every chance this campaign could provoke some reaction from the military, but then they must factor in the massive crowds Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is drawing so far and the general feeling of dissatisfaction with the 2008 constitution.”
A 109-member parliamentary committee to explore possible constitutional reforms was formed by President Thein Sein last year, which launched a public consultation process to inform its findings. Its preliminary report – released in late January – urged against modifying most of the contentious elements of the constitution, because the committee claimed to have been presented with a petition with more than 100,000 signatures supporting barriers to Suu Kyi assuming the presidency, the automatic quota of military MPs, and Article 436.
A 31-member “implementation committee” was subsequently formed in early February following the end of the consultation period, seemingly confirming suspicions that government had no intention of redressing popular dissatisfaction with the constitution. But the recent displays of people power spearheaded by the NLD and 88 Generation may have already caused the committee to buckle: on Tuesday, Tin Maung Oo, an upper-house MP from the ruling party and a committee member, claimed that reforming Article 436 was high on the committee’s priority list, citing “recommendations made by the public” for putting it on the agenda.
By attempting to tackle the single largest barrier to constitutional reform, the NLD and 88 Generation hope their efforts will open the door to further amendments. “It is good that the NLD is broadening out calls for constitutional reform from just 59F,” Mathieson said, “but any discussion on reform has to include the wide gamut of anti-democratic provisions within the constitution, including aspirations by Burma’s ethnic groups for greater federalism.”
In December, a meeting between Suu Kyi and the leaders of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which represents most of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, resulted in a declaration upholding a shared commitment to federalism – as well as the creation of a “federal army,” a proposal that was quickly condemned by the military.
“Sometimes they accuse us [the NLD] of pushing for constitutional amendments for our own political ends, so we can win the elections in 2015. But this is not correct,” Suu Kyi said at the rally. “We know that ethnic peoples also want democracy, through a federal system. The NLD is working towards establishing a federal system… we understand the hopes of the ethnics, and we want the country to be secure and peaceful.”