YANGON, Jan 4 – Myanmar’s civilian president
called in an Independence Day speech on Thursday for reform of a
military-drafted constitution and for justice for all recognised
minorities under a federal system, but made no mention of the
treatment of its Rohingya Muslim people.
Amending the charter to remove a dominant political role for
the military has been one of the most contentious issues facing
Myanmar as it emerges from nearly half a century of strict army
The debate over constitutional reform, however, has been
muted since the assassination in January last year of a lawyer
advising government leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party on
“As we build the Democratic Federal Republic, in accordance
with the results of the political dialogues, we all need to work
collectively for creating a suitable constitution,” President
Htin Kyaw said in his speech marking the 70th anniversary of
Myanmar’s independence from Britain.
Htin Kyaw’s post is largely ceremonial but he is a close
ally of Suu Kyi. He did not elaborate on what he meant by
suitable or spell out why he was suggesting the 2008
constitution drawn up by the military was unsuitable.
The constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming president
because it rules out candidates with a foreign spouse or child.
Suu Kyi’s late husband was British as are her two sons.
It also reserves for the military one quarter of the seats
in parliament and several major cabinet posts, including
defence, interior and border affairs, giving it an effective
veto over constitutional change and control of security affairs.
Myanmar began emerging from 49 years of military rule in
2011. Suu Kyi’s party swept a 2015 election and formed a
government but concern is growing that the reform programme is
stalling or even sliding back.
This has been compounded by attacks on press freedom,
including the detention of several journalists over the past
year. On Dec. 12, the authorities arrested two Reuters reporters
who had covered the army crackdown that has led to the mass
flight of Rohingya residents of Rakhine State across the border
Htin Kyaw called for respect for human rights but he did not
refer to the crisis over the exodus of 655,000 Rohingya people,
nor to the international condemnation it has generated.
“We are working for the emergence of a democratic state
based on the principles of freedom for all ethnic national
races, justice, equality and right of self-determination,” he
“National race” is a term used by Myanmar referring to what
it categorises as indigenous ethnic groups. The Rohingya, who
have traditionally lived in Rakhine, have been denied inclusion
as authorities regard them as illegal immigrants who have
crossed over from Bangladesh.
END TO CONFLICT
The Rohingya crisis erupted in late August after Rohingya
insurgent attacks on security posts in Rakhine triggered a
fierce military response that the United Nations denounced as
Myanmar denies ethnic cleansing saying its security forces
have mounted legitimate clearance operations.
Htin Kyaw called for an end to conflict with insurgents from
various ethnic minorities who have been battling for autonomy
Clashes have flared in recent weeks between the army and
guerrillas in Kachin and Shan states in the north.
Myanmar’s minorities have long demanded self-determination
under a federal system. The army has traditionally seen itself
as the only institution preventing the country’s disintegration
and has favoured a unitary state.
Amending the constitution would not be easy.
Changes require a 76 percent majority vote in a parliament
dominated by military members and their allies.
The killing of lawyer and constitutional expert Ko Ni last
year has not been fully explained even though the gunman was
caught at the scene.
Many activists believe Ko Ni, who was Muslim, was targeted
for his efforts to reduce the military’s political role.