Constitutional Reforms in Myanmar: Moving Beyond the Lady

By Phoebe De Padua

Myanmar Parliament in session. Source: nznationalparty's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Myanmar Parliament in session. Constitutional reform should go beyond provisions for specific candidates. Source: nznationalparty’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Constitutional reform is a pressing topic in Myanmar, as the country pursues all-encompassing reforms in a new rules-based political system. Most discussions about amending the current constitution, written by the former military regime in 2008, have centered on allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president in 2015. She is currently prohibited because of her children and deceased husband’s foreign citizenship.

But reforming Myanmar’s constitution entails broader aspects of governance, the most important of which are the role of the military in politics, the prospects of power-sharing between the central government and ethnic groups, and reforms to the electoral system.

On July 25, Myanmar’s parliament agreed to form a 109-member joint committee to review the constitution. It will submit its assessment to the full legislature later this year. The committee is made up of 50 members from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), 25 from the military, 7 from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and 5 from ethnic-based parties. Since these groups have divergent interests in Myanmar’s political future, the review committee has been divided over needed amendments.

The existing constitution grants the military special treatment in several ways. Military representatives are allocated 25 percent of seats in each chamber of parliament, and passing legislation requires 75 percent of support of members of parliament. More significantly, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces has competing power with the president, and is given broad authority to reinstate military rule if he finds it necessary to protect the country.

In order to become a genuine democracy, Myanmar will need to gradually address the outsized role of the military in politics. Currently, provisions in the constitution make it untenable for the civilian government to pursue further reforms without fear of abrupt military interference. There is little hope of military representatives being removed from parliament at this stage, but the constitution should still be amended to clarify the role of the armed forces and commander-in-chief in accordance with democratic norms, allowing all stakeholders, particularly ethnic minority groups, a larger say in decision-making.

This raises another point—the constitution must be amended to provide ethnic groups greater self-determination at the national and local levels. In a September trip to Shan State, Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann discussed the possibility of establishing a federal governing system that would give more representation to ethnic groups. This could be the most impactful constitutional change in terms of achieving long-term peace and stability in Myanmar.

Ethnic groups have long called for a federal system in the spirit of the Panglong Agreement, signed in 1947 by General Aung San and representatives of the Chin, Kachin, and Shan. Such a system would grant individual states significant autonomy in local political and economic matters. Under the current system, chief ministers at the state level are appointed by the central government and state legislatures hold virtually no power. The current patchwork of ceasefires between the central government and ethnic minority groups is unlikely to translate into a lasting peace as long as this situation endures.

Related to the need for federalism is a constitutional amendment laying out a clear path toward the creation of new federal states. Most of Myanmar’s major ethnic minorities currently enjoy a state in which they are the majority. The glaring exception to this is the Wa, who maintain the country’s largest ethnic fighting force and operate a de-facto autonomous region in Shan State. The United Wa State Army has so far refused to join talks toward a nationwide ceasefire, and has consistently demanded its own state. If Naypyidaw ignores that demand, it will come to regret it.

Another critical area of reform concerns Myanmar’s electoral system. The country’s Union Electoral Commission, whose members are appointed by the government, wants to replace the existing first-past-the-post voting system, in which only the candidate with the most votes in a given race is declared the winner, with a proportional representation system, in which a parties’ representation is the legislature would match the percentage of votes it garnered.

Proportional representation would ensure that no political party could win a landslide victory, thus giving candidates from the military-backed USDP and smaller ethnic parties a better chance in competing with the hugely popular NLD. Aung San Suu Kyi and a number of large ethnic parties have said they see no need to amend the current system. But such a position could prove disastrous if key stakeholders, especially those connected to the military, feel that the NLD’s popularity means the 2015 elections will offer them no stake in government.

Reforming the constitution should be about more than making Aung San Suu Kyi eligible for the 2015 elections. Comprehensive reforms require amendments that go beyond personality politics, and toward long-lasting, meaningful changes. Reforming Myanmar’s constitution, if done right, could usher in a more inclusive and transparent era in the country.

Ms. Phoebe De Padua is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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1 comment for “Constitutional Reforms in Myanmar: Moving Beyond the Lady

  1. December 8, 2013 at 17:49

    Phoebe,

    A very interesting piece. I’ve written a couple versions of a piece recommending a combination of Proportional Representation (PR) and First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), akin to Germany’s Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP), in which one house is elected by single-member districts/FPTP and one by a national list/PR. In the long run, the military’s gradual exit from Parliamentary politics would empower stronger majorities while still requiring coalition building and encouraging ethnic political party representation. One version of my argument is available here: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2013/10/04/myanmar-could-learn-from-germany/

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