By Greg Poling, Phuong Nguyen, & Courtney Weatherby
Myanmar’s Constitutional Review Joint Committee, a 109-member parliamentary body tasked with reviewing potential changes to the nation’s 2008 military-drafted charter, issued its preliminary recommendations on January 31. The only significant change that the committee proposed appears to be a greater devolution of authority to states and regions. This meets a key demand of many ethnic groups, but it is just one of several changes needed. Unfortunately, international attention has focused overwhelmingly on just one of them.
The committee advised against modifying Article 59F, which bars individuals from becoming president if their spouses or children hold foreign citizenship, thereby disqualifying opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. An amended constitution that still bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president will likely mean continued U.S. sanctions on Myanmar. The U.S. Congress on January 17 passed a new spending bill that makes the removal of remaining sanctions conditional on reforms to make the constitution more democratic and progress on various human rights issues. The former is in large part aimed at the opposition leader’s eligibility for president. Members of the U.S. Congress have long been supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, who dominates the narrative about Myanmar on Capitol Hill. Senator Mitch McConnell last year called the amendment of Article 59 one of three constitutional reform priorities for Naypyidaw.
Parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, as a declared presidential contender, would benefit most from leaving Article 59F intact. It seems implausible that his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) could best Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the 2015 elections, meaning that Shwe Mann’s best chance for the top job is for the opposition leader to remain disqualified. Last October the speaker voiced support for amending the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run, but has since hedged. A week before the committee released its report, Shwe Mann said that while he would welcome an Aung San Suu Kyi presidency, amending Article 59 is not the only priority. That statement might be self-serving, but it was not without merits.
Barring citizens from the presidency because of their family members is clearly unfair, but it is not the most pressing amendment needed to Myanmar’s constitution. The committee also proposed no changes to Article 109, which guarantees the military one quarter of all parliamentary seats, or to Article 436, which requires approval from three-quarters of lawmakers to amend the most sensitive parts of the constitution. And the committee recommended keeping a chapter of the constituion that grants immunity to officials of the former military regime who committed crimes while carrying out their duties. Maintaining these clauses that grant the military such wide-ranging special treatment will make it difficult for any future civilian government to pursue comprehensive, rules-based reforms.
The committee also ignored ethnic armed groups’ demands for a federal, rather than unitary, army. If left unaddressed, this issue risks undermining ongoing national ceasefire talks. The committee’s report opted to toe the military’s line, rejecting amendments that would make possible a new army with a more decentralized command structure and greater representation for members of ethnic groups. Myanmar’s constitution stipulates that ethnic armies must stay under the control of the central government’s armed forces, and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing last year rejected calls for a federal army. This will be a pill that most ethnic armies, who have spent decades fighting the government, will be unable to swallow.
Considering that 75 of the 109 members of the Constitutional Review Joint Committee are from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) or the military, disappointment with its recommendations was not unexpected. The committee’s report is not binding, and it would be premature to see it as a sign of an impending anti-reform drive in Myanmar. But it does signal the reservations of the military and ruling party regarding constitutional amendment.
The next step is for a smaller committee of 31 lawmakers to discuss the report’s findings and make official recommendations to the parliament. They will need to address the report’s most flagrant shortcomings, but without stoking military fears of being marginalized by the reform process. Amending the most pressing chapters, like the inordinately high bar for future amendments or the commitment to a unitary military, are critical to Myanmar’s ongoing reforms and peace efforts. But the committee’s timidity shows that there may be no way forward for the country’s nascent democracy if military leaders come to fear being marginalized in the reform process. This means that not every necessary change to Myanmar’s constitution can be pushed through this year.
Mr. Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair and Ms. Courtney Weatherby is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair covering Myanmar. You can follow Mr. Poling on twitter @GregPoling.
Mr. Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.