Myanmar junta tries to win support of ethnic political parties to change constitution

Myanmar’s ruling junta is shoring up ties with pro-military political groups in the run-up to next year’s elections in a bid to change the constitution to ensure its long-term rule in the Southeast Asia nation following its February 2021 coup. 

The State Administration Council, the official name of the ruling junta, is holding talks with pro-military ethnic political parties that will participate in elections the regime plans to hold in August 2023.

Myanmar’s powerful army deposed the democratically elected members of the country’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy, in a February 2021 coup. The army declared a state of emergency, annulled the results of the 2020 election that would have kept the party in power, and vested power in a military junta.

The military regime said it would hold elections when the state of emergency expired, in keeping with a constitutional stipulation that requires elections to be held no later than six months from the end of emergency rule.

Myanmar has 90 registered political parties that could participate in next year’s vote, according to the Union Election Commission. 

Currently, 16 representatives from three pro-military parties — the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party and Arakan National Party – are negotiating with the junta. 

These parties also are negotiating with the Union Election Commission appointed by the junta to change the general election system. 

At issue is the amendment of Article 261, which gives Myanmar’s president the power to appoint chief ministers in the country’s 14 states and regions. Ethnic political parties have long pushed for changing the article to allow state and regional parliamentarians to select chief ministers, but in March 2020 the previous civilian-led government under Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy rejected a pro-military opposition party bill to change it. 

Myanmar military chief and current junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing often spoke publicly about his desire to changes the article even before the coup.

Unilateral constitutional reform

Since late December 2021, a junta team has held at least eight meetings with the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, said party chairman Sai Aik Pao. It is one of the ethnic political parties that is negotiating with the junta for unilateral constitutional reforms.

Sai Aik Pao said his party requested the amendment of almost 70 sections of the constitution, though so far the junta has agreed to change only 20 items after the 2023 elections. They are still discussing a proposal to amend Article 261.  

“If [Article 261] is agreed to, you can say that we have self-governance,” he told RFA. “It will no longer be under the central government. The chief ministers will not be appointed by the president but chosen by the state and regional parliaments.”   

Military members of parliament, who make a quarter of all parliamentarians in the state, regional and national legislatures under the current constitution, will approve the changes, he added. 

Sai Aik Pao said he could not officially acknowledge sections that are still under discussion or others that the junta has agreed to amend.  

Though states and regional parliaments have a right to choose their own prime minister, final appointment power is held by the president. Article 436 (a) and (b) of the 2008 constitution requires 75 percent of all lawmakers to support proposed charter amendments, which effectively allows the military bloc to reject amendments with their built-in veto power. 

More than 50 political parties led by Sai Ai Pao are in talks with the junta about amending the constitution and the holding of the 2023 election. 

‘By hook or by crook’

Thar Htun Hla, chairman of Arakan National Party, the most powerful and largest ethnic Rakhine party that also is holding talks with the junta, told RFA that although his party has agreed to amend some sections, including Article 261, he does not believe it is possible that the changes can be implemented any time soon.

“We are still discussing, but haven’t reached major agreements yet,” he said. “That’s why, as of now, I see no possibility that we can implement the changes in reality.”

The negotiating committee led by Lieutenant General Yar Pyae has proposed that the agreed points will be amended in parliament meetings after the upcoming election, he added.

Controversy over the amendments may also arise because not all political parties are in favor of them. 

Kyaw Htwe, a member of the Central Executive Committee of National League for Democracy, denounced the junta’s attempt to amend the constitution before an election is held as part of its move to retain power through collaboration with some political parties. 

“I assume that SAC [State Administration Council] is doing this to find ways to legitimize what is not politically recognized by anybody,” he told RFA. “The next step is to hold an election by hook or by crook and show the international community that they are legit. Then they are going to hold the power for a long time.”

Political observers say the junta is trying to replace the country’s former first-past-the-post voting system with a proportional representation system that will be at play in the 2023 elections because Min Aung Hlaing has proposed it. 

Commentator Sai Kyi Zin Soe, said the junta is trying to gain support from pro-military parties to help it emerge from political crisis. 

“We can say that the junta is trying to reorganize the political parties under the title of amending the constitution at a time when its popularity is declining,” he said. 

The parties whose support the junta seeks are ones that failed to get public support or lost in the last election, Sai Zin Soe added.

“Since they are in one way or another related to the military, they have vowed to blindly support the military” he said. “They will always follow the junta.”

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