Making good on one of their 2015 campaign promises, Myanmar's ruling NLD party has formed a Joint Committee for Constitutional Amendment just ahead of the 2020 elections. However, even with its super-majority, the party will still need the support of minority parties and military representatives to pass any amendments.
On 29 January 2019, Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) moved for the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Union Parliament, combining upper and lower houses) to pass an emergency resolution on forming a Joint Committee for Constitutional Amendment. The military-appointed members of parliament objected to this move, pointing to the stipulation in the 2008 Constitution that constitutional amendments must be in the form of a bill submitted by 20 per cent of members of parliament, and not by a parliamentary committee. The emergency resolution was passed with the NLD’s majority vote in parliament.
Constitutional amendment was one of the NLD’s campaign promises in Myanmar’s 2015 general election. “Pursuing a constitution in accordance with democratic norms” was also a priority stated in former NLD-backed President Htin Kyaw’s 30 March 2016 inaugural address. However, it was put on hold after the NLD government started its term of office. More than 75 per cent of votes in parliament are required for constitutional amendments. Even with its super-majority in parliament, the NLD holds only 59 per cent. The NLD could still get the support of minority parties in parliament, but it would need at least one vote from the military representatives who hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats. The military representatives have stated that they are not ready for amendments to the 2008 Constitution, especially to those clauses which protect the military’s role in national politics.
It seems that the NLD’s sudden decision to raise constitutional amendment at this point in its term is a political ploy ahead of the upcoming 2020 general election.
The NLD is known to be concerned with other clauses of the constitution, too. For example, Section 59(d) requires all presidential candidates to be “well acquainted with the affairs of the Union, such as political, economic, administrative and military”, and Section 59(f) precludes candidates whose family members are citizens of a foreign country or persons “entitled to enjoy the rights and privileges” as such. Another clause of concern is Section 436, which stipulates that any amendments to the Constitution must have 75% of parliamentary votes.
It seems that the NLD’s sudden decision to raise constitutional amendment at this point in its term is a political ploy ahead of the upcoming 2020 general election. The NLD government needs to counter criticisms over lagging economic performance and peace negotiations, rising crime rates and lack of job opportunities for the youth. As such, constitutional amendment may be seen as the only way to mobilize its core supporters and win support from ethnic minorities. Like to the NLD’s signature campaign in 2014 to amend Sections 59(f) and 436 of the constitution, the move could also signal an unofficial start to election campaigning — well before the official campaign date starts 60 days before polling day in 2020.
Ye Htut was Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and a former Information Minister of Myanmar.