The Tatmadaw’s constitutional concession

For the reform-minded among us, last month’s parliamentary vote on possible constitutional reform was a disappointment, if not entirely unexpected.

Right on cue, the military – which holds 25 percent of the seats in parliament and has an effective veto over constitutional amendments – rejected the possibility of holding a plebiscite to change any of the provisions that allow it to maintain its grip on power behind a thin veneer of democratic institutions.

And yet, the army made one seemingly inconsequential concession. On November 8, when Myanmar votes in the general election, there will be another ballot in which voters will participate. The people will have an opportunity through a referendum to change the wording of Article 59(d) of the constitution, which currently states that the President and the Vice-Presidents must be acquainted with “military” affairs. The proposed amendment would replace “military” with “defence” – a seemingly inane game of semantics.

Or is it? Before the parliamentary vote, the military had blocked all efforts to amend the 2008 Constitution, insinuating that it was inviolable. But now, a crack – however small – has emerged. Will this tiny compromise pave the way for more meaningful reforms down the line?

Maybe. Chile’s experience with democratisation may provide some clues. As with Myanmar’s constitution, the 1980 Chilean constitution contained provisions allowing for multi-party elections while maintaining the military’s stature as a “shadow government” overseeing political affairs. These provisions were intended to lay the foundation for a “modern and protected democracy” similar to the “discipline-flourishing democracy” sought by the army Myanmar after the 2010 elections.

Today, that same constitution has formed the basis for truly democratic and plural governance in Chile, despite its authoritarian origins. The dictator Augusto Pinochet was forced to step down in 1988 after losing a plebiscite that would have extended his rule for another eight years. By all accounts, this loss came as a shock; he did not expect to lose. He had designed the rules of the game, after all. The military was supposed to remain above politics and be the guarantors of stability and efficient governance. But 27 years on, Chile’s armed forces are firmly consigned to the barracks, and Pinochet was indicted for war crimes ten years after his ignoble departure. This purge of military influence over Chilean politics has been entirely due to gradual constitutional reforms, not violent demands that the government be overthrown.

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Chile’s 1980 constitution was a rather sophisticated document, even if it ultimately failed in its original purpose of maintaining indefinite military hegemony. It paid heed to the possibility that the junta would one day no longer exist, and sought to protect the role of the military through the creation of institutions such as the National Security Council. Known by its Spanish-language acronym COSENA, it was comprised of the President, the presidents of the Supreme Court and Senate, and the commanders-in-chief of the various branches of the armed forces. Any of these figures could, during the Pinochet years, call the tribunal to session if “threats to national security” were perceived, but after constitutional reforms in 2005, this right was granted to the President alone.

Myanmar’s civilianised political order, for all its failings, enjoys a great degree of popular legitimacy – as did Pinochet’s military regime. A massive popular revolt against Myanmar’s government, like the abortive uprising of 1988, is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.

Unlike Pinochet’s Chile, Myanmar has no constitutional provisions allowing the military to be voted out of office; indeed, its veto powers are a major point of contention. Myanmar’s government enjoys true popular support, meaning that any possible meaningful political changes in the near future are likely to emanate from parliament, not the street.

While it might appear to be pandering at best and insulting at worst, the fact that Article 59(d) is to go to a referendum may mean that the military could be open to exploring further reforms in future – particularly if it is confident that Myanmar’s next president will work with it, not against it. The future of constitutional reform may depend on who assumes the presidency next year, and how comfortable the military will be that Myanmar’s future head-of-state will uphold the status quo.

The precedent set by the 59(d) plebiscite may not seem like much on paper, but if it does ultimately prompt further concessions, it could eventually lead to a diminished role for the military in political life. This may entail a gradual process of reform taking place over decades, as has happened in Chile – or it may not. At least we now know that Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution is not sacrosanct. The implications of this development for the future of reforms, however, remain to be seen.

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