To amend or not to amend – the constitutional issue hangs over Myanmar’s entire political landscape. While people have been told for many years that Myanmar would transform into democracy, over the past three years most have figured out that a political system based on the 2008 Constitution is far from the democracy that was promised.
While there have been positive changes, the state is facing new challenges, such as sectarian violence and civil war, complicated land disputes and the jailing of protesters exercising the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
Accordingly, “amend the 2008 Constitution” and “amend section 59(f)” – the clause that bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency – have begun to echo across Myanmar.
People and political groups from both Myanmar and abroad who want to establish a genuine democracy are calling for the changes to be made before the coming election.
And change appears to be coming. The parliament collected tens of thousands of submissions on which sections should be amended and has formed a committee that will submit a bill by the middle of next year.
The president has said he agrees the constitution should be reviewed and changed to meet international standards of democracy.
Meanwhile, the opposition National League for Democracy has held public awareness talks and informal polls across Myanmar that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people.
At the same time, however, some people in the hluttaw are trying to organise a campaign against constitution amendments, according to Pyithu Hluttaw representative Thura U Aung Ko. These are widely believed to be hard-line elements in Thura U Aung Ko’s own party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Recently, some public events have been held to solidify support for keeping section 59(f) on the grounds it is needed for “national protection”. The controversial monk U Wirathu is a known advocate of section 59(f).
This has led to something of a tug-of-war that has cast doubt on whether section 59(f) – or indeed any sections of the constitution – will be amended before 2015.
Political analysts say Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to face more obstacles and come under more concerted attacks from opponents in the coming 18 months as elections scheduled for late 2015 approaches.
However, if the government or other forces seek to maintain the constitution as it is, this is also likely to create instability in coming years, experts say.
Well-known analyst U Yan Myo Thein says what is needed to avoid instability and ensure fair elections next year has already been proposed months ago: four-way talks.
“There is no denying that there needs to be a political agreement between the USDP, government, military and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s why she urged a meeting of all four groups. They can get an agreement if they hold a four-way meeting,” he said.
In August, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi invited President U Thein Sein, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann to participate in the talks. Since emerging from house arrest she has tried to cultivate positive relationships with all of them, but is closest to Thura U Shwe Mann.
Almost immediately proposed talks were nixed by President U Thein Sein, who argued they would undermine the parliamentary process. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has vowed to try again and Thura U Shwe Mann has said he will accept the offer, but it remains unclear whether the government intends to consider it further.
While U Thein Sein appears to be the holdout, U Yan Myo Thein said it is just as likely that the military opposes the talks.
“Both the president and the commander-in-chief are members of the National Defence and Security Council. It may be that the military thinks it is early to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or they do not yet trust her. Neither the government nor the military is ready to make political agreement yet,” U Yan Myo Thein said.
“But the military and the USDP need to accept the fact that Myanmar’s political reforms can only move forward through negotiation. All need to accept that building confidence and political give-and-take is important.”
Such a meeting, however, would be unusual in Myanmar, which largely lacks a political culture of negotiation.
Ko Myo Yan Naung Thein from the People’s Network for Constitutional Reform said it is likely that there are “invisible forces” at work behind the scenes.
“The proposal is very clear, so it is difficult to say why they are having problems meeting. As far as I know, the president and commander-in-chief are on good terms and the commander-in-chief once said he would follow the way set by former Senior General Than Shwe. We have to consider what is happening behind them,” said Ko Myo Yan Naung Thein, who is also the director of political training school Bayda Institute.
Such a meeting would have benefits not only for amending the constitution but also efforts toward national reconciliation and establishing a federal union system. He warned that without talks Myanmar risks perpetuating the cycle of conflict and instability it has endured since independence.
“If they can start the quadrilateral meeting, I also want to see a national ethnic representative involved. Then it will truly represent all people in Myanmar,” Ko Myo Yan Naung Thein said.
United Nationalities Federal Council general secretary U Khun Okkar agreed the issue has significance for ethnic minorities and also urged the inclusion of an ethnic representative. He believe there is no prospect of amending the constitution through the hluttaw alone but at the same time the peace process won’t be resolved unless there is constitutional change.
“All need to participate to find a solution for next year, when we expect to set a framework for political dialogue.
“We support the current situation in which all people including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are trying hard to amend the constitution. From the outside we are also seeking to amend it.”
One recent event has given some hope of an impending breakthrough. The television broadcast of the Union Day ceremony in Nay Pyi Taw on February 12 clearly showed U Thein Sein, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Thura U Shwe Mann and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seated together at the same table.
Is it an indication that the four plan to meet again for political talks?
“This kind of thing is never a coincidence. I’m sure it is deliberate,” said Ko Myo Yan Naung Thein. “This could lead to the starting of official four-way talks.”
Translation by Thiri Min Htun