Sunday, August 20, 2017

New bill would strengthen military hold over powerful security council

In a move that has taken the National League for Democracy by surprise, the outgoing military-backed government has circulated a bill in parliament that could swing the balance of power in the crucial National Defence and Security Council further in favour of the Tatmadaw.

Lawmakers said yesterday the proposed bill, which was circulated among MPs in the upper house on December 21, would strip the president of his voting rights in the 11-member council unless it was deadlocked.

The council, which has extensive powers over defence and security issues, comprises 11 members – the president, two vice presidents, two parliamentary speakers, the commander-in-chief, vice commander-in-chief, and the ministers for defence, home affairs, border affairs and foreign affairs.

Given the constitutional allocation to the military of three ministries – defence, home affairs and border affairs – and that the Tatmadaw will appoint one of the two vice presidents, the council under the new NLD-led government will have a pro-military majority with six members.

The National Defence and Security Council Bill amends a provision in the Union Government Law enacted on October 21, 2010, in the time of the military junta’s State Peace and Development Council, U Phone Myint Aung, an independent Amyotha Hluttaw representative, told The Myanmar Times yesterday.

Section 10(a) in the original law, which covers the formation of the 11-member council, does not prevent the president from voting in its meetings, but the newly circulated draft would remove his or her right, except in circumstances where the council is deadlocked.

“Now, as it is drafted as a bill, it says the president is the chair of the council but not allowed to vote,” U Phone Myint Aung said, noting that the change could cost the government a vote in the council.

The bill follows controversy over the outgoing government’s tabling of a separate bill that would grant immunity for life for the president from prosecution for acts related to his time in office.

Critics accused the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was heavily defeated by the NLD in the November 8 elections, of trying to push through legislation in the last few weeks of the current parliament to protect President U Thein Sein. The USDP and government have denied this.

NLD lawmakers in the two houses of parliament yesterday expressed surprise and said they knew nothing about the new bill regarding the National Defence and Security Council as it had not yet been sent to the Bill Committee of the Amyotha Hluttaw, or upper house.

U Myat Nyarna Soe, an upper house MP for the NLD, said the Bill Committee was already busy with the 2016-17 state budget and other important issues.

U Phyo Min Thein, an NLD representative in the lower house, also said he knew nothing about the reported bill. “That bill might have been leaked from the internal drafting committee, but it still has not come out legally yet,” he said.

U Phone Myint Aung, the independent MP, said the balance of power on the council, without the president voting, could become six on the side of the military, and four for the NLD government.

He said that for example it could affect the powers of the next president to declare a state of emergency in certain areas, as U Thein Sein did last February in the Kokang region of Shan State in response to heavy fighting between the military and ethnic Chinese rebels.

Vikram Nehru, analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for Intenational Peace, a US think tank, noted last June that the 2008 constitution contains several provisions that ensure that the reins of power remain firmly in the hands of the military.

“Chapter XI of the constitution grants the National Defense and Security Council … powers to impose martial law, disband parliament and rule directly, but only if the president declares a state of emergency. And it provides a legal channel for the military to reimpose direct military rule,” he said.

U Phone Myint Aung said it was still not clear whether the bill would be formally submitted to parliament and, if so, whether it would be approved.

Additional reporting by Wa Lone, translation by Thiri Min Htun