Myanmar Military’s Refusal to Back Charter Reforms Threatens Peace Process

A refusal by Myanmar’s military to give up its parliamentary veto to any amendment to the country’s constitution may scuttle government efforts to forge peace with armed ethnic groups after decades of civil war, a rebel leader says.

Colonel Khun Okkar, joint-general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a bloc of 12 ethnic armed groups, said failure to amend the constitution to provide more powers to ethnic states would make current efforts to forge a nationwide ceasefire meaningless.

“It is saddening to hear” that the military is against any proposed changes to the constitution that will take away its veto power over all future amendments to the charter, he told RFA’s Myanmar Service following a three-day meeting of UNFC members at the Myanmar-Thai border which ended Wednesday.

The UNFC said in a statement at the conclusion of its meeting on Wednesday that the country’s civil war with ethnic groups would only end if the constitution was amended to provide greater powers to ethnic states.

The government has agreed to hold “political negotiations” with armed ethnic groups on prospects of giving more powers to ethnic states if a nationwide ceasefire is forged.

“[Only] after amending the constitution and when the people have been accorded their rights to political participation, will our political dialogue be successful,” Khun Okkar told RFA.

“If the political talks are not successful, cessation of hostilities will not [be permanent].”

Khun Okkar said that if the military stood in the way of efforts to amend the constitution, then political negotiations would not make headway.

“If such a situation continues to prevail, even if a ceasefire is achieved, we would have to progress to political negotiations [between the government and rebel groups on giving greater powers to ethnic states].”

“But I am concerned that the political negotiations will never end.”

Committee report

The military’s stand not to give up its veto power in the legislature was announced this week by an official of a parliamentary panel tasked with reviewing the country’s 2008 military-written constitution.

The 31-member committee submitted its final report to parliament on Tuesday, containing proposals from all political parties, civilian organizations, and the military.
Parliament will discuss the points raised by the report.

Article 436 of the constitution effectively gives the military, which controls 25 percent of seats in parliament, a veto over constitutional amendments, since it requires more than 75 percent of parliamentary representatives to approve any change.

Nearly all of Myanmar’s ethnic armed rebels have signed bilateral cease-fire agreements with the government since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration took power from the former military junta in 2011.

The government is negotiating with all of the country’s ethnic armed groups to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement, though the process has been repeatedly delayed. The agreement would be followed by political dialogue aimed at giving ethnic groups greater representation in parliament.

Khun Okkar said that without amending Article 436, ethnic groups could not expect their political situation in the country to change.

He asked parliament, which is now discussing the panel’s findings, to heed calls from various groups to change the charter.

Among the groups is opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which initiated a petition that garnered nearly five million signatures backing constitutional amendments.

Military incursions

In its statement, the UNFC also called on Myanmar’s military to end incursions against rebel groups in the country’s Kachin, Shan, Mon and Kayin states in recent months, saying the actions had led the coalition to doubt the government’s commitment to the peace process.

“We are concerned that this situation will affect the work towards a ceasefire and the efforts with regard to political negotiations,” Khun Okkar said.

“Since it is the military's responsibility, we have stated that we are having doubts as to whether they really desire peace, a ceasefire and successful political dialogue.”

On Tuesday, two Myanmar government soldiers died in a rocket-propelled grenade attack during clashes with armed ethnic Ta’ang rebels in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state and two government troops were also injured in the exchange, according to rebel groups.

They are the first casualties reported in recent months in the battle between the two sides since the beginning of October, adding to concerns over ongoing fighting between government troops and the Shan State Army-North in Shan state, and other rebels groups in Kayin and Mon states in the southeastern part of the country.

NCCT support

However, Khun Okkar said that the UNFC would continue to support the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), representing more than a dozen armed ethnic rebel groups, in its talks with the government’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC).

Talks last month between the two sides were stymied by disagreements over military and other issues, but they have agreed to a fourth draft of a nationwide cease-fire agreement, whose points would require internal discussion before they meet again this month.

“The main point is that the UNFC will fully support, assist in and protect the efforts of the NCCT,” he said.

“We will identify the obstacles and disagreements, and then coordinate with the [rebel] forces, civil organizations and political parties to obtain their suggestions on how to overcome them.”

Reported by Ma Waimar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.