Is Myanmar’s junta chief planning to draft a new constitution?

On Wednesday junta chief Min Aung Hlaing visited a rural Hlegu Township hall deemed to be the birthplace of Myanmar’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution—a move seen as symbolic ahead of the expiration of his de-facto power in half a year.

His trip to Nyaung Hna Pin village, some 45km north of Yangon, was published on the covers of junta-controlled local language newspapers the following day. 

One of the photos accompanying the article showed Min Aung Hlaing inspecting the Pyidaungsu Hall, a site built to host the military’s last National Convention, which appeared to be in ruins.

Amid the ongoing political turmoil engulfing the country since the February 2021 coup, the junta chief called for the dilapidated hall to be restored as a matter of priority. 

“Emphasis must be placed on maintenance to ensure that these buildings survive in the long term,” he was quoted as saying. 

A military constitution

Myanmar’s Constitution, widely seen as undemocratic, was approved in a rigged referendum held by the military just days after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country in May 2008. A subsequent claim that the charter had garnered the approval of nearly 94 percent of voters was dismissed outright by political opposition, civil society and rights activists. 

While ousted elected lawmakers have since declared the 2008 Constitution defunct, the current junta still claims the national charter is valid, its rushed endorsement 14 years ago standing in contrast to the decades that the military dedicated to ensuring its political supremacy within a constitutional framework.

Rejecting the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s 1990 elections, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)—headed by then military chief Than Shwe—initially announced plans that year to draw up a new Constitution to replace the country’s 1974 charter drafted by an earlier junta.

Between 1993 and 2007, some 700 delegates—most of whom were local SLORC officials rather than elected parliamentarians—were invited to attend the military-led National Convention sessions. The process was wrought with dissent, labelled as a ruse to allow Than Shwe and the military to cling to power. At times it was boycotted by ethnic and NLD party delegates, the latter of whom were eventually expelled. 

The resulting 2008 Constitution allocated 25 percent of parliamentary seats to unelected soldiers and gave the military control over key ministries. It also included provisions for the implementation of a one-year state of emergency, in which the three pillars of state power—executive function, legislation and the judiciary—could be transferred to the military’s commander-in-chief if the country’s “national solidarity” or sovereignty were deemed to be under threat. 

Min Aung Hlaing invoked this clause when he staged the military coup on the grounds that the NLD had committed fraud in the country’s general election in late 2020. 

The state of emergency has already been extended for an additional year, and is set to expire in February 2023. At this point, the junta chief could be forced from a role he adopted with justification drawn from the 2008 Constitution, raising questions regarding the lengths to which Min Aung Hlaing will go to retain his current level of power. 

‘A way out’ 

A former member of the military-proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) speculated that Min Aung Hlaing’s recent visit to Nyaung Hna Pin signalled that he is looking for “a way out” of the current tangled state of affairs.

In addition to concern around the upcoming expiration of the state of emergency, the source doubted that the military would keep to its post-coup promise to hold elections in August of next year and transfer power to the winning party.

“The current situation does not allow the opportunity for an election to take place. [Min Aung Hlaing] can’t extend the state of emergency period anymore, either,” the individual explained. “This means that the Constitution will be automatically repealed on February 1. So he might want to hold the Nyaung Hna Pin [Convention] again.”

To prolong his rule, the former USDP member added, the coup leader would need a new justification to continue to claim the right to oversee the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government as the military’s state of emergency dictates.

“I think he is playing the election as a Plan B. It actually would have been fine if they had not released information about his visit to Nyaung Hna Pin. Now his papers have reported on it with a purpose,” the former USDP member told Myanmar Now.

Even if he were to become President following an election fixed by his own junta, Min Aung Hlaing would ostensibly lose power in the new structure, said an ex-military officer who served in the Thein Sein administration prior to the NLD’s election in 2015.

“His existing status might be better for him than what he would have with the outcome of an election,” he commented, noting that the coup leader’s visit to Nyaung Hna Pin could indicate that he is “thinking about constitutional amendments” that might allow him to keep his position. 

The drafting of a new constitution would create grounds for and a framework within Min Aung Hlaing could extend his claims to authority. 

Days before the coup, Min Aung Hlaing commented in a video conference with senior instructors and officers at the National Defence College that the 2008 Constitution could be abolished, a move that some interpreted as a suggestion that the military was prepared to seize power if necessary.

He noted that there were a number of precedents for constitutional change in Myanmar’s modern history.

“During the Revolutionary Council era, the 1947 Constitution was repealed. When the State Law and Order Restoration Council came to power, the 1974 Constitution was abolished,” he said.

Veteran lawyer Kyee Myint—who speculated that Min Aung Hlaing was plotting a coup amid signs of political turmoil prior to the event—also dismissed suggestions that the junta chief would submit to an election, likely favouring a constitutional shift instead.

“There won’t be an election. He himself wouldn’t even hold it. If it doesn’t happen, he won’t need to justify his actions with the 2008 Constitution anymore,” the lawyer said. 

Kyee Myint explained that the new charter would mean the junta chief would have the opportunity to “reset.”

“I feel like he wants to draft the Constitution again so that he can rule the country for the rest of his life,” he said. 

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