Can Myanmar go where Thailand fears?

opinion February 21, 2019 01:00

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Our neighbours have taken an initial bold step towards military reform, a course that seems unimaginable here



Myanmar’s decision to establish a committee on reforming the military-drafted constitution is a small but welcome step in the right direction. The panel’s scope and mandate have yet to be settled, but this is the first time Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has faced up to the powerful armed forces – the Tatmadaw – since its landslide election victory in 2015.

That long-awaited triumph forced the Tatmadaw to share power with a civilian government, but it did so with supreme confidence, having built into the constitution clauses that protect it indefinitely from being sidelined from politics. The post-election arrangement gave the military a quarter of all seats in parliament and the most important ministry portfolios and made amending the constitution extremely difficult.

Previous efforts to tunnel through the Tatmadaw’s political control have ended badly. U Ko Ni, the NLD’s constitutional expert, who happened to be a Muslim, was shot dead at Yangon’s airport in January 2017 while exploring a loophole in the 2008 constitution by which a national referendum might be organised to amend the document. Another loophole he’d uncovered helped enable the NLD to create the office of state counsellor for Suu Kyi, in which she serves as de facto head of government despite there being a designated prime minister.

Eighteen of the 45 seats on the new multi-party committee belong to the NLD and eight to the military, with the rest divided among other players, lending a sense of inclusivity. Clearly the panel will have one eye on the 2020 election. 

The military has at least acknowledged that the constitution needs to be amended, though it insists the “essence” must not be altered. What that specifically means is a subject for debate, but take the generals’ apparent readiness to accept change as a sign of the times for Myanmar. It could be that they harbour the usual authoritarian intent but are playing along in the face of global condemnation of recent deeds. The United Nations and several countries independently have called for the army to be barred from Myanmar politics and even for some of the generals to be prosecuted for crimes against the Rohingya ethnic Muslim minority.

The announcement of the committee on constitutional amendments also happened to come just days after a court sentenced Ko Ni’s killer to death.

Reforms, if instituted, will proceed at a snail’s pace, but the push for change coming during the civilian government’s first term feels swift and bold. 

Compare it with the situation in Thailand, where demands for military reform meet with silence, derision or scorn. The ruling junta flouted the need for reform immediately after seizing power in 2014 and then promptly abandoned the notion as it settled in for the long haul. It crafted a new constitution to secure military engagement in politics for at least another 20 years and, for good measure, tilted electoral law in its favour. “Reform” is the last word you will hear General Prayut Chan-o-cha utter as he seeks a voter mandate to carry on as premier.

His shyness of the word is understandable, though, considering how Prayut has failed to deliver any significant reform in four years – not to the economy or policing or education and certainly not to the military, obese with generals. The Thai military, like Myanmar’s, could do with some rehabilitation.