Aung San Suu Kyi has long maintained that “genuine change” in Myanmar could only ever be truly achieved by reforming the country’s constitution. Indeed, the 2008 military-crafted charter has in effect baked junta influence into the Southeast Asian nation’s nascent political infrastructure and has locked Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party into an uneasy power share with stiff-necked generals ever since the NLD roared to a globally celebrated electoral victory in 2015. But when Myanmar’s legislature approved a motion this month to create what seemed like a promising parliamentary committee to look into constitutional reform, it was met with little fanfare.
On the surface, that may appear surprising. After all, it marked what was potentially a transformative step forward for Myanmar’s economic and political development. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has been a major stumbling block for the country’s progress. Beyond reserving 25% of parliamentary seats (in effect a veto on constitutional reforms), and having control over the influential Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defense ministries, military commanders have led assaults on the country’s myriad ethnic groups and have stymied peace talks. To be sure, the move was commended by Yanghee Lee, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. “The establishment of this committee is a positive development that I hope will aid Myanmar to truly transition to democracy,” Lee said.
Yet many in Myanmar see the committee as just another false dawn. Constitutional change has long been on the agenda, and has often hit snags. In 2015 an attempt by parliament to remove the Tatmadaw’s veto failed to pass, and in 2017 Ko Ni, a legal adviser to Suu Kyi who was prominent in angling for reforms to the 2008 accord, was assassinated. As such, apathy toward this latest attempt seems understandable.
Others are skeptical because they have grown accustomed to the creation of ineffectual special oversight panels and boards, which have been a banality of Suu Kyi’s reign as state counsellor. Progress on the implementation of recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State that was led by the late Kofi Annan, for example, has been minimal.
But pessimism surrounding the parliamentary committee is largely due to the reality of the country’s political situation. While the military is only allocated eight seats on the 45-person panel, there is little sign they will cooperate with reforms that would ultimately dilute their power.
For one, military members of parliament stood up in protest when the idea was first tabled and one major-general questioned the panel’s plurality. Meanwhile, Brigadier-General Than Soe, also a military MP, said they would be against changes to the “essence of the constitution.” That’s hardly an encouraging omen for genuine reform. Moreover, the details on what particular elements of the charter the government are seeking to change remains unclear. Whatever the outcome, there will need to be military acquiescence for any change.
So with military intransigence a given, some are querying the point of proposing the committee in the first place. It could just be realpolitik at play. The 2020 elections are not far off, and the NLD is eager to shore up support after signs that the public may be growing impatient with the ruling party. Reforming the constitution was a key part of the party’s platform, and pushing for the creation of an investigative committee might help give the party the optics of reform, even if the reality suggests otherwise. Suu Kyi does after all think of herself as “just a politician.”
That’s little consolation for the people of Myanmar, who expected real change under the NLD. But Suu Kyi’s softly-softly appeasement strategy with the military was hardly going to achieve that in just a few years. Indeed, instead of ruffling feathers, she has attempted to gain the confidence of the generals first, by not being seen to condemn their calculated genocide of the Rohingya and by shielding them from scrutiny through a clamp down on free speech. That has not only drawn criticism from citizens, but also from the international community and multinational investors.
But despite the cynicism, the new committee could be an important vehicle to heap pressure on the Tatmadaw. A report on the panel’s amendments must be submitted in July. Before then the government needs to clarify what clauses it seeks to change, outlining which particular military powers it seeks to dilute, and it needs to seize the opportunity to drum up support for reform by engaging and reconciling with ethnic political groups.
If the military, as expected, refuses to abide by the panel’s conclusions, it may at the very least undermine the Tatmadaw in the eyes of the public, by showing it to be a roadblock to Myanmar’s progress. But that really depends on the boldness and willpower of the NLD to irk the commanders. Given the party’s track record, many are not holding their breath.