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Myanmar drops positive hint on constitution change

Five million petition could help Suu Kyi to presidency

Myanmar drops positive hint on constitution change

Thousands of demonstrators attend a rally in May in support of constitutional changed that would allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president

AFP in Yangon and John Zaw, Mandalay

August 14, 2014

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Myanmar's parliament could consider a petition by Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition calling for an end to the army's veto on amending the constitution in the former junta-ruled nation, the house speaker said Monday.

The campaign has garnered nearly five million signatures and has seen opposition leader Suu Kyi – who is constitutionally barred from becoming president – challenge the military to support altering the charter, which was drawn up under the previous regime.

"Because it's related to the workings of parliament, which listens to the voice of the people, MPs can consider the people's voice," said Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament's combined houses and leader of the army-backed ruling party.

Shwe Mann was a senior figure in the former junta who shed his uniform to become part of Myanmar's quasi-civilian government that took power in 2011, ending decades of outright military rule.

He did not specify how parliament, dominated by army officials and ruling party members, would scrutinize the petition, but stated that it would not affect the deliberations of a parliamentary committee set up to recommend changes to the controversial constitution.

The committee, which is believed to be against changing the provision that bars Suu Kyi from becoming president, will make recommendations to parliament, which will then debate the proposals.

Suu Kyi is trying to change key sections of Myanmar's constitution ahead of the 2015 elections, which are widely expected to be won by her National League for Democracy (NLD) – if they are free and fair.

As it stands, she is ineligible to be president because of a clause in the 2008 charter blocking anyone whose spouse or children are overseas citizens from leading the country. Suu Kyi's two sons are British.

Aung Kyi Nyunt, MP from the NLD, said that the parliament represents the voice and the wishes of the people, and therefore must consider the petition. He hailed the petition as a successful step along the path to reform.

Many observers are skeptical, however. To alter the constitution requires a majority vote of more than 75 percent in the parliament. But unelected soldiers make up a quarter of the legislature and have the final say on any changes.

"I don’t think anyone should have high expectations of a parliament that is basically controlled by the military," said David Scott Mathieson, Yangon-based senior researcher for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

Prominent Yangon-based political commentator Yan Myo Thein is similarly doubtful, calling the move by Shwe Mahn to consider the petition "a political game and an attempt to reduce pressure from the international community".

The Nobel laureate, Suu Kyi herself has urged soldiers to support the petition.

"People say the country is on the path towards democracy, but … if they want the people’s confidence, why do they [the military] refuse to allow the constitution to be amended?" she told a rally in Yangon in May.

Shwe Mann made his comments at a press conference following a weekend meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) talks in Naypyidaw.

Kerry said he praised officials and the country's President Thein Sein on sweeping reforms that have seen the removal of most Western sanctions.

But he raised a number of concerns including ethnic and religious unrest, the arrests of journalists and dissidents and the constitutional amendment.

Next year's elections would be a "benchmark" for the world to measure Myanmar's progress, Kerry said.

The president will be elected by parliament after the polls.

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