Have Myanmar’s reforms hit a logjam? A Dialogue on Constitutional Change

Almost a year ago the people of Myanmar voted for major change when 58% of the electorate voted for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, marking a watershed in the country’s political transition. Yet, Myanmar still operates under a constitution that lacks democratic guarantees, and the path ahead for reforming the constitution remains unclear. A new constitutional deal could emerge from the ongoing peace talks, or Parliament could initiate reform of the constitution or the writing of a new one. These were the main conclusions of a multi-stakeholder roundtable dialogue that Democracy Reporting International and the Myanmar Institute for Democracy held on 15 October 2016 in Yangon.

Participants in the dialogue, including parliamentary committee chairs, political party representatives, government advisors, and civil society activists, explored under Chatham House rules how the reform of Myanmar’s constitutional framework could proceed. They concluded that there is a strong mandate for change. The NLD’s election manifesto highlights the need for constitutional reforms, while the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) includes a commitment to “establish a union based on the principles of democracy and federalism.” The NCA was signed last October by the government of former president U Thein Sein, the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and eight of country’s ethnic armed groups.

Notwithstanding the strong mandate for constitutional change, some participants pointed out that attempts to initiate reforms in Parliament had failed in the past because the 25% of MPs representing the military blocked such efforts. The current constitution, written by the military, requires a 75% majority for constitutional change. While some speakers considered whether the military could be convinced to soften its position, others suggested that Parliament could adopt a decision to launch a referendum, asking the people whether a new constitution should be written. Discussing constitutional change as part of the peace process, some participants underlined that all ethnic armed groups did not sign the NCA and that fighting continues in certain areas of the country. The feeling among many was that this avenue may be too slow to achieve the desired constitutional change in due time.

One participant from civil society noted: “I have never been in a meeting where decision-makers discussed so openly important political questions with us.” Meanwhile, DRI’s Executive Director Michael Meyer-Resende said: “The dialogue has touched on critical unresolved questions of this political transition. I am glad that we managed to help open this debate up for civil society. At the end of the day, any agreement will need to be supported by many people in order to stick.” The multi-stakeholder dialogue coincided with the one-year anniversary of the signing of the NCA.


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