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“The Constitutional Protest Cycle in Myanmar” by Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2019/65, 29 July 2019

On 15 July, Myanmar’s Parliamentary Joint Committee for Constitutional Amendment submitted its final report.  Dominated by members of the ruling National League for Democracy, the committee has offered a staggering 3,765 recommendations. Its report has ignited a wave of protests across Myanmar. These protests,  largely though not exclusively in support of the effort of the  National League for Democracy (NLD) to effect constitutional amendment, highlight a noteworthy feature of Myanmar politics. This feature is the cyclical nature of protests, and the fact that they coincide with political ups and downs.

The military-dominated constitution-making process in the 1990s and 2000s resulted in the present 2008 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, whose promulgation paved the way for the country’s transition toward democracy and in turn for the NLD’s and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s coming to power. However, anti-military constituencies in Myanmar — composed mainly of supporters of the NLD, or more correctly of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — view current constitutional arrangements as flawed and undemocratic, despite their undeniable degree of democratic and federal content.  

Protests of varying type, scope and size are a basic aspect of Myanmar’s still uncertain transition from military dictatorship toward a more democratic form of governance since 2010. Protests emerge, re-emerge, and die away, depending on the political context and the level of popular support for the causes that they seek to further. The November 2015 general elections, which saw the popular NLD chaired by now-State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi come to power, were also a form of electoral “protest” against the continued rule of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government. A spin-off from the military, that government had been in power since 2011.

Constitutional reform is one of the very few issues that nearly always capture the attention of the people of Myanmar. Whereas the military, the opposition USDP and their supporters claim that the NLD’s move for constitutional amendment is procedurally unconstitutional and often resort to xenophobia in noting the British nationality of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband and her two sons, the latter party’s supporters welcome the process as a democratic endeavour.

Undeniably, the NLD initiated the process of constitutional amendment, through which it can mobilize its supporters, with an eye on Myanmar’s 2020 general elections. However, it is also true that the constitution gives discretionary powers to the military that enable it effectively to block major or even minor amendments to the charter. Therefore, a crucial recommendation of the NLD members of the Joint Committee is for lowering the bar to amendment of the constitution, so that it does not require the support of the unelected military representatives who hold a quarter of the seats in the parliament.

The parliament plans to debate the report of the Joint Committee in the near future, and further public protests in support of or against the various arguments advanced in that debate now seem inevitable — in keeping with the cyclical pattern of protest politics in Myanmar.

Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.