2019/21, 28 February 2019
Recent weeks have seen an unprecedented confrontation between Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government and the country’s military over the issue of constitutional reform. The NLD and its supporters, both in the parliament and outside, have put increasing pressure on the military to agree to reform of the Myanmar’s 2008 constitution. The military has warned that this may cause political instability. The confrontation will not abate, but rather only deepen, in the months to come.
On 19 February, the NLD-dominated Pyidaungsu Hluttaw — the joint Union Parliament, combining the upper and lower houses — formed a 45-member constitutional review committee despite the strong objections of the military representatives and of representatives from parties that included the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The members of the review committee include 19 NLD and 8 military representatives. The final report of the committee is due before 17 July.
Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing asserts that the military also wants to see the constitution amended as necessary, but he warns that the review and the eventual amendment must not affect the essence of the charter. And, military representatives in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw also warn of the risk that the process of amending the constitution may bring political instability to Myanmar.
These military representatives, members of the USDP, and those of several small political parties allege that the NLD failed to follow proper procedures by forming the review committee. The NLD has responded that it was able to secure the support of the required twenty per cent of members of parliament, to prepare a bill and to submit it without having to consult and to seek the approval of other military and non-military representatives. Further, it opted to form the committee in order to have an inclusive process and to achieve a common agreement on constitutional amendment. In fact, the constitution states nothing about the formation of a constitutional review committee prior to the submission of an amendment bill.
Equally important, some critics question why it took the NLD three years to make this move. They allege a possible political motive is to attract the people to the party for the 2020 general elections. Many concerned commentators note that any constitutional amendment is simply impossible without the support of the military, and that a confrontation between the two sides will only derail Myanmar’s ongoing transition and harm the populace. Some warn that constitutional reform should not take precedence over the economy and the unsettled peace process that are more pressing issues. The military also accuses that the NLD is driving a wedge between them and the people.
All these comments apparently fail to see an important international dimension. The west and the United Nations provided their strong support when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi constantly questioned and challenged the 2008 constitution from 2012 through 2014. But, she has come under strong international criticism since 2017 over the Rohingya refugee crisis. Her alienation from the west and the larger international community apparently made Daw Aung San Suu Kyi choose a Look East policy by getting closer to China that offers diplomatic protection on the international stage. However, Myanmar is aware of the fact that it needs some balancing between China and the west. She seems to have calculated that a project for constitutional reform may find common ground with and re-establish a rapport with the international community.
The current confrontation over the amendment of Myanmar’s constitution has not been confined to the parliament. Leading NLD figures including party Chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself and Vice-Chair and Mandalay Region Chief Minister U Zaw Myint Maung have requested that the people support the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw’s amending the constitution. Protestors including several NLD members and supporters have demonstrated to demand constitutional reform in Bago, Monywa, Sagaing, Kyaik Hto, Mandalay, and Yangon in recent weeks. They are planning more protests in other places in the coming weeks. NLD supporters’ Facebook accounts are now full of stickers asking the people to join the protests, cartoons whose aim is to shame the military, and news on the review process. On the other hand, hundreds of self-styled nationalists including the extremist monk Ashin Wirathu held a protest in Yangon on 16 February to ask the NLD to follow what they contend is the proper procedure for constitutional amendment, apparently echoing the line of argument of the military and the USDP.
Since the review committee has a July deadline, more confrontations between the NLD and its supporters on the one hand and the military, the USDP and their comrades on the other hand will occur both inside and outside the parliament. Whether the constitutional review will result in the further democratization and federalization of Myanmar is difficult to forecast at this time. In the next five months, Myanmar is likely to see protests and counter-protests in the streets and discursive wars on social media. However, whether these events will lead to a political crisis and impact on next year’s general elections is a question to be answered in time.
Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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