Myanmar’s legislature is the cornerstone of its four-year-old civilian government, but reserves one quarter of parliamentary seats for appointed military representatives, giving them veto power over all constitutional amendments. The legislature is now considering amending the constitution to remove this veto power, which international observers say is a key step in affirming the country’s transition to civilian rule.
Myanmar’s main opposition party the National League for Democracy has already gathered some three million signatures on a petition calling for the repeal of the military veto provision known as article 436.
Earlier this week in Myanmar, also known as Burma, Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi told a crowd how important the measure is for the country.
"If we don't change 436, it means that the military has virtual veto power over what can or cannot be changed within the constitution, and I think it should be the elected representatives of the people who decide whether or not the constitution should be changed," she said.
Under the article, any constitutional amendments require a 75 percent majority to be approved, effectively granting a veto to the one quarter of the military appointees. The petition is set to conclude on July 19.
Ko Ni is a legal advisor for the NLD and sits on their constitutional change committee. He says it will be very difficult to change article 436 through parliament because the NLD hold only per cent of the seats in parliament. He says the party hopes the petition signature drive will help their cause, but it will still likely need the support of some military MPs, willing to break away and not align their votes with the military block.
"In my opinion it is impossible, but because of the pressure of the citizen. If they consider the will of the desire of the citizens, maybe they will agree to amend the constitution. If they are so afraid to change section 436, we can fail," said Ko Ni.
Even if the amendment gets past parliament with a 75 percent majority, it still requires a 51 percent majority in a nationwide referendum, as a final step before being repealed, according to Ko Ni.
Since the Thein Sein government took office in 2010, it has been criticized for being only nominally civilian, among other reasons because the constitution is amendable only with the permission of the military.
Speaking at a military academy in Naypyitaw last week, U.S. Major General Anthony Crutchfield told assembled officers that an important step to becoming a professional military is to be controlled by a civilian government, and not the other way around.
Members of the military frequently explain their political power by saying it is aimed at preventing chaos in the country. David Law, professor of law and political science at Washington University, calls that suspiciously self-serving.
Although changing the constitution through legal means is very difficult, there are a number of ways to circumvent that problem, according to Law, through a constitutional tribunal, a new referendum, or by court ruling. He points out, however, that taking power away from the military too quickly, could backfire.
"If they don't have seats in the parliament then you run a different risk which is that the parliament does whatever the parliament wants to do, but that may just lead to a coup," he said. "So the question is how do you have a democracy while also not giving the military both the ability and the desire to overthrow whatever government you create?"
The next step for the proposed amendment is when the committee drafting the bill sends it to the full parliament, expected before the end of July.