Sunday, August 24, 2014

Charter Reforms in Southeast Asia: The Good, The Bad, and The Half-Serious

Constitutional changes reflect democracy’s transitive nature in Southeast Asia.

The good: Five million people in Myanmar signed a petition asking Parliament to remove the undemocratic provisions in the 2008 Constitution. The bad: Thai military authorities enacted an interim constitution that gives sweeping powers to the army. The half-serious: Philippine President Benigno Aquino III hinted that he is open to the idea of amending the Constitution amid declining popularity ratings.

Myanmar’s opposition party the National League for Democracy and activist network 88 Generation Peace and Open Society were able to gather 4,953,093 signatures in more than 300 townships across the country in support of the petition to amend certain provisions of the Constitution that perpetuate the military dictatorship.

They focused on Article 436 of the Constitution, which stipulates that any constitutional amendment requires the approval of 75 percent of Parliament. This means that any amendment would need the army’s concurrence, since 25 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military. Perhaps the opposition is particularly interested in deleting Article 436 because the provision makes it difficult to scrap Article 59(F), which bars Myanmar citizens with foreign spouses and foreign-born children from running for president or vice president. It is Article 59(F) that is stopping opposition leader and global democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in 2015, since she was married to a British national.

Constitutional reform is seen by the opposition as essential to Myanmar’s transition to democracy. Even the Parliament has formed a Joint Committee to Review the Constitution, and this body recently recommended the amendment of more than 450 of the 457 articles in the Constitution, including article 436. For Khin Zaw Win, director of the policy advocacy group Tampadipa Institute, the charter needs to be revised to allow for more decentralization and a devolution of power.

Myanmar’s government is lukewarm about the proposal to amend the Constitution, but it cannot simply ignore the voice of five million voters. Indeed, the proposed constitutional reform could reduce the ability of the military to influence Parliament, but it would certainly encourage the greater participation of opposition forces in the governance of the country.

Alongside five million people in Myanmar signing a petition to draft a new constitution, the Thai military government (known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)) has enacted an interim constitution without popular approval.

The drafting of a new constitution was supposed to signal the country’s transition to civilian rule after the army launched a coup last May. But based on the 48 articles of the Constitution issued by the NCPO, it seems the military will retain considerable power in the new government.

The constitution mandates the creation of several bodies that would govern the country, namely the National Legislative Assembly, the National Reform Council, the Constitutional Drafting Committee, and the NCPO. It is the NCPO, or military leadership, which will choose the members of these bodies.

Moreover, the constitution has placed several restrictions on selecting members of the legislative assembly. For example, a person who was a member of a political party in the last three years cannot join the body. Since politicians belonging to the major political parties are barred by the Constitution from serving in the government, military officials and their allies will dominate the interim government.

The Thai Citizens Against Dictatorship described the Constitution as Thailand’s “most anti-democratic constitution in half a century.” They zeroed in on Article 44, which empowers the NCPO to intervene in almost all aspects of governance. Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva also questioned  this provision. “Article 44 clearly states that the power has binding effect in legislative and judiciary aspects, without a process to challenge or scrutinize them. That means it’s the ability to issue a law or reverse a court verdict.”

The army earlier vowed to implement political and electoral reforms before handing power back to the civilian government. But the enactment of the interim constitution has doused hopes that the military is ready to give up power and allow Thailand to successfully reclaim its democracy.

As for democracy, it became a trending topic in the Philippines last week after President Benigno Aquino III revealed in an exclusive media interview that he is now amenable to a proposed amendment to the 1987 Constitution so that he can run for a second term, by removing term-limits for elected officials. Some of his former supporters reminded him that his mother fought hard to prevent the return of a dictatorship by including a term-limit provision for politicians in the 1987 Constitution.

There were proposals to amend the Constitution as early as 2010, but Aquino remained indifferent to these initiatives. So why suddenly change position now.

The president’s allies argued that Aquino should be allowed to run for a second term in 2016 so that he can continue to implement his reform agenda. For his part, Aquino said charter change should be implemented to limit the vast powers of the Supreme Court, which recently declared that Aquino’s budget reform program was unconstitutional.

However, there are those who think Aquino declared support for charter change in order not to become a lame duck president, whose term will expire in less than two years. His critics also described Aquino’s statement as a ploy to distract public attention from the corruption and impeachment cases that Aquino is currently facing. His ratings are down amid allegations that he continued to distribute pork barrel funds to legislators and political allies, despite the Supreme Court order declaring this funding mechanism to be a violation of the Constitution.

Whatever his intentions, Aquino seems unwilling to stop his public supporters and allies in Congress from pushing the charter change.

If 2013 was the year of elections and protest upheavals in Southeast Asia, it seems 2014 will be known as the year of constitutional reforms. Charter reforms usually happen because there is a strong public desire, and the goal is often to strengthen democratic rule. However, these initiatives can also be manipulated to serve the interests of the ruling clique. In the end, it is the citizens who must decide whether or not charter amendments are genuinely needed. The Diplomat

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