Constitution Change Essential for a Federal Democratic Myanmar
In a surprise move, the National League for Democracy (NLD) tabled a motion in Parliament to debate forming a committee to amend the military’s 2008 Constitution. Unsurprisingly, the Myanmar military Members of Parliament (MPs), whose power is entrenched in that flawed Constitution, have vehemently opposed such a move. The proposal is timely, as 29 January marks two years since the assassination of the NLD’s legal adviser, U Ko Ni, who was working on a draft replacement of the 2008 Constitution. Given the peace process that is stuck, the lack of equality for ethnic and religious minorities, and the centralized, militarized power structure that governs the state, it is vital that at the very least, major amendments are made to establish a genuine federal democracy in Myanmar.
The NLD’s emergency motion, submitted by executive committee member and upper house MP, U Aung Kyi Nyunt on the 29th of January, is the first major attempt by the NLD since it came to power to start a process of constitutional amendment. It proposes to form a multi-party committee that would discuss and draft amendments to the 2008 Constitution. A vote to debate this proposal was overwhelmingly approved, although the military MPs stood as a symbol of their opposition. Furthermore, it is unsure whether they will participate in debating the proposal in case it is perceived as them giving their tacit approval.
The NLD have cited how undemocratic the Constitution is, and they are certainly not wrong. It stipulates that the military have 25% of seats in both houses of Parliament as well as state and region legislatures. They have control over three powerful and important ministries – Home Affairs, Defense, and Border – Affairs while one of the vice-President positions goes to a serving military personnel. Amending the 2008 Constitution requires approval from over 75% of parliament and thus the article essentially gives the Myanmar military veto power over any attempts at amending the constitution. Such provisions make it clear that the military has de facto control over the key levers of the state and any notion of a democratic, civilian government is merely a pretense.
However, it is not just the military’s control over government that is problematic. The deeply centralized structure of governance and policies of Burmanization have perpetuated the lack of equal rights for ethnic nationalities, an issue that has been at the core of Myanmar’s civil war for over 70 years. The 2008 Constitution merely entrenches this. For example, Article 37 (a)(b) of the Constitution provides that the state is the ultimate owner of all land and natural resources, centralizing ownership and control by the Union government. The centralization of natural resources prevents ethnic nationalities from managing their own land and resources or to determine policies related to development leading to the entrenchment of decades-long exclusion and discrimination.
Furthermore, although the country has no official state religion, Buddhism has a special place in the 2008 Constitution. Article 361 states, “The Union recognizes special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” In contrast, the Constitution merely recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as existing at the time when the Constitution took effect. Thus, further entrenching the dominance of Buddhism at the expense of minority religions.
What is more troubling, is that Burmanization policies are also continued under the NLD. On 1 February in Loikaw, the state capital of Karenni State, 20 youths were arrested for protesting the attempts by the government to erect a statue of General Aung San, the founder of what is now the Myanmar Army and for many non-Bamar, the hero of independence and the country itself. However, for many people of ethnic nationality, they have their own heros, and their own martyrs, not a Burman whose efforts to engage with ethnic people have been betrayed by successive leaders of the Myanmar State. As Lum Zawng, and ethnic Kachin activist currently in jail under defamation charges after participating in peaceful protests against the war on the Kachin stated, “What we, ethnic people want is Aung San’s promise, not his Statue.”
Aung San’s promise was that ethnic people would be able to exercise their right to self-determination. While the NLD may focus on the particular article of the Constitution that bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from being president – 59(f) – it is the centralized Bamar-majority control under the military that has inflicted the most damage on the lives of ordinary people in Myanmar, particularly from ethnic communities. In order to establish a federal democracy and to remove the military from power, drastic amendments, or more aptly, the complete rewriting of the 2008 Constitution is vital. This would secure the conditions for durable peace and the protection of the rights of ethnic nationalities and religious minorities who have suffered for decades from the Buddhist Bamar statebuilding project of successive military regimes, and thus a genuine transition to democracy can begin in Myanmar.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Burma Campaign UK
By Human Rights Watch
By International Commission of Jurists
By International Karen Organization
By Karenni Civil Society Network
By Karenni Civil Society Network
By Office of the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar
By Save the Salween Network
By UNICEF Myanmar
By Free Expression Myanmar
By Human Rights Watch
By Saw Alex Htoo and Frank Scott
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”