Battle over Myanmar Constitution Caught Washington in its Crossfire

By Phuong Nguyen

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi receiving her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in 2012. She was awarded the Peace Prize in 1991 for her struggle for democracy in Myanmar, but was placed under house arrest in Yangon. Western governments have long considered her opinions to be central to their engagement policies with the Myanmar government. Source: Utenrikdept’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Myanmar’s union parliament on June 25 voted to reject five of six major amendments to the 2008, military-drafted constitution, in a decision that has critical implications for Myanmar’s political landscape and puts U.S. policymakers in a delicate position.

The existing constitution gives the military an outsize influence in the legislature. Sections 436 (a) and (b) mandate that more than 75 percent of members of parliament need to give their approval to amend any parts of the constitution. This is significant since appointed military representatives hold 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

Section 59 (f), which bars anyone with foreign spouses or children from becoming president, is seen as an instrument to prevent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from being eligible for Myanmar’s top position because she has two British sons. Meanwhile, Section 60 (c) says that nominees for the vice-president positions, among whom a president will be picked, do not need to be elected lawmakers. This allows a military nominee to qualify for one of the three vice presidential slots or even the presidency.

Early on in Myanmar’s reform process, which began in 2011, amending the constitution emerged as one of the most prominent issues in domestic politics. While they have different grievances about the constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi and the majority of ethnic political leaders regard the current constitution as undemocratic.

The U.S. and other Western governments, which have supported the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar for decades, also wanted to see the constitution amended to reflect the will of all its people, allow citizens to freely choose whom they want as their leader, and render Aung San Suu Kyi eligible for the presidency.

Both President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing reaffirmed on different occasions that Myanmar is not ready for a reduced military role. But an unlikely supporter of amending some of the most sensitive clauses in the constitution has been Lower House speaker Shwe Mann, who also chairs the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Because of his ambition to become president and the energy he has invested into championing the country’s young legislature as a key policymaking body, Shwe Mann also wanted to see the military’s influence in parliament kept in check, despite being a former high-ranking military officer.

The constitutional amendment bills put forward in late June by the USDP—and which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), supported—sought to bring the threshold of parliamentary approval needed to amend the constitution down to 70 percent from the current 75 percent. Loosening Section 436 is key to changing any parts of the constitution down the road.

Those seeking changes to the constitution also proposed amending Section 60 (c) to require all nominees for vice-president and president to be elected members of parliament. The proposed bills suggested removing some restrictions in Section 59 (f) that bar Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Military lawmakers strongly objected to most of these suggested amendments and flexed their muscle to vote down all but one change. Passing these would again require approval by more than 75 percent of the parliament.

This effectively closed the door for Aung San Suu Kyi to seek the highest political office in the near future. She and her supporters once hoped that if Section 436 was amended, it would have paved the way for modifying Section 59 (f) in more far-reaching ways after the national elections on November 8.

The opposition leader has refused to commit the NLD to taking part in the elections with certainty, and the recent outcomes of the constitutional vote may give her further pause. Some of Aung San Suu Kyi’s most arduous supporters within and outside the NLD have criticized her for having trusted the current government more than she should have.

The NLD’s participation in the 2012 by-elections gave the government an important boost in international legitimacy, since the previous 2010 national elections, which ushered in the Thein Sein government, were regarded as widely fraudulent. While the NLD has been actively involved in the election planning process, some voices have emerged that called on Aung San Suu Kyi to boycott the elections.

Her decision will be of paramount importance to the thinking of U.S. policymakers about Myanmar. Washington recognizes that the outcome of the 2015 elections will be a make-or-break moment for Myanmar’s reform process and will likely base much of its future policy toward Myanmar accordingly. U.S. officials are prepared for a less-than-perfect outcome, but the potential of an election boycott would rob the elections of any chance of being seen as credible or inclusive.

For Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, uncertainty ahead of a milestone political event is likely to breed further tension or conflict. It is in the U.S. interest to coordinate with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom many U.S. leaders and lawmakers have long supported, so that the NLD sends a clear and irreversible message about its attitude toward the elections.

The failure of the parliament to pass these major amendments has also had the effect of sidelining Shwe Mann within Myanmar’s traditional military elite. At the onset of the reform process, the military calculated that the USDP could serve as another vehicle for its influence in parliament, in addition to the military-appointed bloc of lawmakers. Shwe Mann’s attempts to push through changes that would have reduced the military’s authority have alarmed the military leadership, which may eventually become convinced that it needs to act more firmly to protect its autonomy within Myanmar’s new political system.

Among the country’s top political leaders, Shwe Mann is believed to have the best working relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi. For some time, it was believed that she was open to forming a coalition with a future government in which Shwe Mann would serve as president, in the event that the constitution could not be changed.

It now remains to be seen whether the USDP and the military will collectively support Shwe Mann’s bid to become president. After much speculation, Thein Sein announced during his recent visit to Japan that he will consider a second term, and his supporters within the USDP and ethnic groups would like him to stay on. These shifting dynamics may leave Aung San Suu Kyi more vulnerable after the elections.

While U.S. officials have often said that amending the constitution is a sovereign matter for the people of Myanmar to decide, the recent results of the constitutional votes have further complicated Washington’s outlook toward Myanmar. Already a number of U.S. lawmakers have said that the elections cannot be free, fair, or credible under the current constitution. That view seems to have been reinforced now that Aung San Suu Kyi’s chance to be the next president has been blocked for the foreseeable future.

If the military overplays its hand following the elections and during the process of choosing the country’s next leadership team, it could harden the view among some in Washington, particularly in Congress, that the United States may need to reassess its engagement policy toward Myanmar.

Update: Since the article was originally published on July 9, 2015 in the biweekly newsletter “Southeast Asia from Scott Circle,” opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has committed her party, the National League for Democracy, to taking part in the national elections in November. President Thein Sein reportedly announced that he will not contest the next presidential election due to his health condition.

Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a Research Associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC.

Phuong Nguyen

Phuong Nguyen

Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.

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