Is Myanmar headed towards more representative and less military-steered democracy? On February 6, Myanmar’s parliament voted to establish a new preparatory committee to deliberate amending the country’s military-drafted 2008 constitution, which gives the armed forces an outsized “leadership role” in politics.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) rose to power in a landslide November 2015 election win, in part on a vow to make democratizing changes to the charter. Nearly three years in office, however, the NLD has not yet made those promised amendments, a mark on its record as new elections scheduled for next year start to emerge on the political horizon.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government has struck a balance with the autonomous military, seen in her dogged defense of the armed forces’ actions in Rakhine state, where internationally criticized “clearance operations” forced over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.
She has also come under fire for her refusal to condemn rampant human rights abuses committed by the military in war-torn areas of Kachin and Shan states.
But any NLD move to amend the charter and diminish the military’s political power could upset that delicate balance and put the civilian government on a collision with the top brass, led by Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, with potential implications for stability depending on the nature and breadth of the proposed changes.
By military design, change won’t come easy. The constitution stipulates that 25% of the lower and upper houses of parliament’s seats are reserved for military appointees, with the other 75% elected. A proposal to amend the charter only requires the support of 20% of lawmakers to be considered, a hurdle the NLD can easily clear with its majorities in both houses.
But any move to amend the 104 constitutional clauses related to the military’s role and its domination of the nation’s political structure requires 75% of all MPs to support and then must pass a referendum. The 25% bloc of military appointees thus gives the armed forces de facto veto power over any attempt to change crucial clauses.
Suu Kyi, a former political detainee who had become a MP in a by-election in April 2012, told this correspondent that same year that she would give priority to changing the charter’s clause 436 in Chapter XII, the provision that requires three-quarters of MPs to approve military-related constitutional changes.
It’s a Catch 22 situation because that clause is among the 104 clauses that require military approval to change. Some have argued that the NLD only needs one military delegate to cross the floor for a constitutional amendment to succeed if the rest of MPs are in favor of change.
But that hasn’t happened as the appointees clearly take their marching orders from the top brass and risk charges of insubordination for breaking ranks. Even if a maverick emerged and helped the NLD and other parties’ elected MPs over the 75% mark, the charter is unclear on how a referendum would play out and whether each amended charge would be put up to a vote.
This complicated procedure, coupled with Myanmar’s record of holding bogus constitutional referendums — the first in 1973 was as lacking in credibility as the one held before the current 2008 constitution was adopted — make it virtually impossible to change the clauses which in various ways and means legally safeguard the military’s hold on power.
That hold is structurally firm, giving the military much more power than Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government. The military currently appoints the nation’s three most important ministers, namely for defense, home and border affairs. The constitution also gives the commander-in-chief the right to seize power in the case of an emergency, though technically the president must make such a request.
No legal action can be taken against the military for its actions while exercising such emergency powers, according to the constitution as it’s now written.
The powerful Home Ministry controls the police and internal security apparatus and, until recently, the General Administration Department (GAD), which appoints civil servants from the center down to the village level.
In December, GAD was transferred from the Home Ministry to the Ministry of the Office of the Union Government, bringing it for the first time under nominal civilian control. It was a small but important change made by the elected part of the establishment, even though those officials appointed by the military will for now remain in their respective offices.
But there is little elected MPs and Suu Kyi’s government can do to roll back the military’s powers apart from the dramatic option of scrapping the charter altogether and adopting a more democratic new one – as suggested by NLD advisor and constitutional expert Ko Ni, who was assassinated in January 2017 in what some suspect was a military plot.
Shredding the constitution would most certainly lead to a risky confrontation with the armed forces, one which the NLD would almost inevitably lose. For now, Suu Kyi and the party appear content to work within the military-dominated system rather than attempting to dismantle it.
As such, the new parliamentary committee will likely be more form than substance, a forum for discussing constitutional amendments that will likely never see the light of day. Indeed, the military’s MPs were against even the committee’s formation.
For the NLD, which clearly feels it needs to show that it at least tried to enact change before next year’s election, the move represents a mild risk.
For when the smoke has cleared and the dust has finally settled in parliament, constitutional change will prove elusive and the military will remain Myanmar’s most powerful institution for the foreseeable future. And no committee, agency or body – apart from the military itself – has the power to change that.