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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2648

Is Myanmar in the midst of constitutional catch-22?

By - Zin Linn

Myanmar’s seemingly civilian government headed by President U Thein Sein has declared itself as a reformist administration since it took power in March 2011. Now, it has to encounter head-on a major challenge in order to show its true mind-set concerning constitutional revision which has been calling by various oppositions.

As demands for constitutional amendment increase, the Union Parliament of Myanmar accepted a proposal to form a 109-member Joint Committee to Review the 2008 Constitution on 25 July with the intention of examining possible changes. The committee was formed with members of parliament, members of political parties, military MPs and individuals.

However, the ruling USDP party holds 52 seats and the military-representatives take 25 seats in the 109-member committee, while 7 members of the opposition NLD take part there with 25 members from small ethnic parties. The formation of the committee seems unbalanced since there are 77 pro-military members in the 109-member Joint Committee. As a result, people suspect whether the committee would keep up amending undemocratic articles of the 2008 Constitution.

Myanmar’s current Constitution, approved in a May 2008 referendum, is inundated with false political values. It says the country must be united under one military command. To bring the ethnic groups in line with this term, the previous military regime has ordered all armed rebel groups to become part of Government’s border guard force, but failed afterward.

Meanwhile, a three-day (29-31, July) Ethnic Conference organized by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) that held in Chiang Mai, Thailand unanimously rejected the military-sponsored 2008 constitution, after debate. The Ethnic Conference also made a decision to draft a new federal constitution before the end of the year. Some observers have criticized the decision as a war cry for a go back to hostilities and confrontation.

On 21 August, Lt-Gen Yawdserk, the leader of the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), said he agreed with the resolutions passed by the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) led conference in last July, according to Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.).

“They stand for what the people really desire,” Yawdserk told SHAN. “My only criticism is that it is too early to issue such calls, since the most urgent need for the country today is peace and reconciliation.”

“Nobody except for a few likes the 2008 constitution,” Yawdserk made a comment via media. “But for the sake of peace and reconciliation, what we can do now is its amendment. Not all of it can be amended at present either. So we need to consider what should be amended first,” he said.

Earlier, he had told SHAN that the first step in the national reconciliation process should include: Full autonomy for the states, election of the state chiefs, and the transformation of the Government Army (Tatmadaw) into a federal union armed forces. “The country can never become federal until and unless the armed forces become federal first,” Yawdserk said.

In contrast, Myanmar's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) warned of serious risk and bad consequences if the 2008 constitution is abolished and redrawn. The nation and the citizens will undergo the consequences emerging from the motive, said an announcement of the party's Constitution Amendment Committee, as reported by the 5 October Xinhua News.

On 3 October, the 109-committee released a statement calling advice and suggestions from an extensive measure of stakeholders for review or amendment of the 2008 State Constitution. According to the committee’s statement, it would seek assessment and advice from the Legislative Pillar, Administrative Pillar and Judicial Pillar through the Union Parliament, and would seek assessment and advice of political parties, organizations and individuals through respective Union Parliament representatives or by addressing of assessment and advice to the secretary of the Joint Committee for Reviewing the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The committee set the deadline for 15 November, 2013 for submission of advice and assessment.

Among the citizens, there are two different aspirations concerning the constitution topic, with one side calling for amendment and the other side for total redrawing of the constitution which is supported mostly by the ethnic political groups.

In the meantime, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) also said through a statement that even though the party had discussed with counterparts from ethnic minorities on the issue, it has not yet made a resolution on the matter because it decided to listen the people's voices first.

The NLD has been determined to work together with the ethnic parties to get public opinions for the amendment or redrawing of the constitution. It also said that the collection of public opinions will be submitted to the parliament.

The NLD recalled its canvassing strategies exercised in the by-election in April last year. Its campaign focused on restoration of the rule of law, constitutional amendments relating to discover the facts that the 2008 Constitution does not meet the standard of democracy, especially in completion of equal-shared democracy, lack of creation of equal opportunity for all citizens, and to make changes the terms that spoil the free and fair election in upcoming 2015.

The 194-page 15-chapter Republic of the Union of Myanmar Constitution 2008, drafted in accordance with the detailed basic principles laid down by the National Convention which was lasted for 14 years from 1993 to 2007, was promulgated in May 2008 after a controversial nationwide referendum.

An ethnic objection said that government’s signing ceremony for a countrywide ceasefire agreement without adequate guarantees of political dialogue and monitoring mechanisms is unacceptable. There is a constant demand from the country’s ethnic groups to enjoy equal political, social and economic rights. The Constitution must guarantee the rights of self-determination and of equal representation for every ethnic group in the legislative body.

People do not forget that the new charter emerged in the course of a charade referendum (May 2008) cynically held a after a week of the Nargis cyclone that caused more than 138,000 deaths and left millions homeless. The bill was ratified by the parliament in January 2011. The biggest flaw in the constitution is the privileged 25 percent of the seats in the parliament are set aside for soldiers who are basically appointed to the legislative body by the commander-in-chief of the military.

Unless the ongoing amendment process may dump the privileged 25% seats, it possibly will be too early to say that Myanmar is going on a right reform direction.

- Asian Tribune -

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