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Myanmar's ruling party escalates constitutional feud with military

National League for Democracy sends bills to legislature in bid to sway voters

In taking a step to appease voters, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi risks fracturing an already tense relationship with her country's military.   © Reuters

YANGON -- The gulf between Myanmar's military and the National League for Democracy-led government is set widen now that the constitutional amendment committee, a parliamentary body, has submitted bills that would reduce the number of military officers serving as lawmakers.

The commander in chief currently handpicks officers to fill 25% of all upper and lower house seats. Although the military is inclined to reject the legislation, the ruling National League for Democracy intends to use it to demonstrate its resolve to carry out a campaign promise ahead of a planned general election in November.

Myanmar's parliament on Monday said it had received two bills from the committee. According to an NLD lawmaker who attended the day's legislative session, the bills call for gradually reducing the military's quota of parliamentary seats, relaxing the requirements needed to amend the constitution and revising how National Defense and Security Council seats are allocated.

The final amendment would give a majority of the council's seats to civilians.

Among its duties, the council approves the military's commander in chief.

The NLD won a resounding victory in the last general election, in 2015, on a promise to revise the constitution. Last January, it submitted an emergency motion to set up the constitutional amendment committee. The motion was enacted the following month.

The committee spent the intervening months summarizing the opinions of various parties and drafting the two bills.

Revising the constitution, which was enacted in 2008, requires more than a three-quarters majority vote by all parliamentary members. This gives the military-installed lawmakers veto power.

Two years after being released from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to take an oath in the lower house of parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, in May 2012.   © Reuters

Said one military executive, "Any revision that shakes the [current] system is unacceptable."

The military-appointed lawmakers boycotted the committee's deliberations.

NLD leader and state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi called for the amendments, saying the country's "current democracy is not perfect."

Myanmar has been described as having a dual power system. While the NLD government is in charge of the economy, social welfare and other general administrative matters, the military is responsible for dealing with domestic conflicts and maintaining security.

Although Myanmar's president has the right to appoint military commanders, each appointment is subject to the approval by the National Defense and Security Council, a majority of whose members hail from the military.

After being released from house arrest in 2010, Suu Kyi improved her relations with the armed forces as she began a path toward establishing a government.

Military rule in Myanmar ended a year later. And Suu Kyi's NLD government was inaugurated in 2016, with Suu Kyi herself becoming Myanmar's de facto leader. In the years since, Suu Kyi has showed a certain amount of consideration to the armed forces.

But relations between the NLD and military began souring in 2018 when the government brought up the subject of constitutional amendments.

Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing, left, and Aung San Suu Kyi no longer meet behind the scenes, sources say.   © Reuters

Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the military, used to meet behind the scenes regularly but no longer do, according to sources in the capital of Naypyitaw.

In December, Suu Kyi testified in front of the International Court of Justice regarding the persecution of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority. She at turns defended the military, saying it had no "genocidal intent," and distanced herself from it.

In that regard, she said it can "not be ruled out" that Myanmar's security troops may have used "disproportionate force."

The widening gulf in Myanmar politics is also due to sharp differences between the NLD-led government and the military over the issue of peace with ethnic minorities.

Kei Nemoto, a professor at Sophia University in Japan, said that revising the constitution is "essential, of course," for Myanmar's democratization process. But he also pointed out that the military "backlash" against the NLD will strengthen.

Rather than becoming part of a march toward greater democracy, the two bills -- one of which is subject to a national referendum -- could end up fracturing NLD-military relations beyond repair.

Additional reporting by Thurein Hla Htway in Yangon.

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