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Myanmar rallies for a 'document of the people'

Despite mass support, bid to amend constitution faces hurdles

Myanmar rallies for a 'document of the people'

Supporters of a bid to overhaul the constitution gather outside Yangon correspondent, Yangon

June 4, 2014

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In the return volley of a call-and-response chant, the crowd, fists punching the air, voiced their approval of the latest cause of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement.

This red-wearing, thousands-strong column, marching through eastern Yangon’s industrial Thaketa township, turned out recently in support of amending the country’s 2008 constitution. The charter supposedly garnered the backing of more than 92 percent of the populace in the days following the devastating Cylcone Nargis in May 2008, but this and similar rallies taking place across the country are designed to put paid to any suggestion that it is a document of the people.

Looking on in a threadbare shirt and a longyi, 70-year-old U Ohn Myint, a trader, nodded his approval.

“I like it,” he said. “The present constitution is not good; to make it better is a good idea. But I won’t take part. I’m too old.”

For most of U Ohn Myint’s lifetime, Myanmar has been ruled by a clique of generals, who only passed power to a nominally civilian government made up predominantly of retired army men in 2011. The 2008 document had locked in the military’s future role in politics by awarding the army an automatic 25 percent of parliamentary seats, and creating a requirement that more than three quarters of parliamentarians must back any constitutional change.

It is this effective veto, secured by Article 436 of the charter, that the opposition has chosen to target first. Leading the charge is Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, allying themselves with the popular 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group, a collective of former student activists. At present Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from taking the presidential seat in the 2015 elections, hence her budding role as chief agitator for the constitution’s overhaul.

The marchers crowded into a sports field, and between rusted football goalposts, a common backdrop on this nationwide campaign, listened to speeches and music.

“We are doing this all over the country. It’s important that everyone knows about what we are doing,” said U Nyan Win, the NLD’s spokesman. As well as the rallies, a signature campaign is also underway and petitions will be delivered to parliament.

“Any constitutional change must depend on the people, so we are collecting up the signatures to show that they support us,” he said, estimating that total support for the campaign would be as high as 30 million, well over half the adult population.

With elections next year that could see the hugely popular NLD gain a majority, it might seem as if the movement is on the final straight. But for the crowd in eastern Yangon, many of them well over 40 years old, current events are viewed in the context of a long struggle that reaches back to before the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.

Through a loudspeaker, they were asked to bow their heads and observe a short silence, paying homage to General Aung San—the nation’s founding father—and his comrades in the independence movement, to the students who died protesting one-party rule in 1988, and to the monks killed when the so-called Saffron Revolution was crushed in 2007.

Khin Maung Naing, 50, has been an opposition supporter since the 1980s, when he took to the streets as a student. “It’s been a long time,” he admits. “But I see myself as opposing injustice.”

While the campaign is first targeting the military’s veto, that change is intended to usher in further changes to the constitution, which has a number of clauses giving the military special privilege. It also insists the president must not have family connections in foreign state — like Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British — and is widely opposed by Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, who want a charter that enshrines federalism.

Environmental researcher Khin Maung Naing said that although the country now has a parliament actively debating laws, the military’s secure seats undermine his faith in the legislature.

“Thirty percent are always absent from parliament,” he said. “They are old, some are traveling abroad, they get sick or pass away … I don’t believe what they say.”

But at present, securing further constitutional amendments is a distant hope.

“They will change it when they [the military-backed government] are confident in profiting themselves,” said Khin Maung Naing, before adding a note of optimism. “Whether they want to amend or not, when they hear the people’s voice, they will feel embarrassed, so they might change it.”

Such are the long odds of this effort. Amending Article 436 has received some support in the military-backed ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and may well be secured in amendments currently being considered.

But Yangon-based political analyst Yola Verbruggen said the circumstances meant that the generals and former generals were still firmly in charge of what happens next.

“They will make, or not make, changes if and when they see fit,” she said. “If they make the desired amendments I strongly believe that it will be because they choose to do so, not because they are forced to.”

A two-thirds requirement for amendments would be the likely result of a change, so the mathematics to make wholesale reforms before the election would still require the support of much of the USDP or the military.

“People have told me over the past year to focus on the 2020 elections because, they said, nothing significant will change in 2015. They might be right,” Verbruggen said.

Suu Kyi is already 68, but at the grassroots, her cause does have support from many in the youth.

Aung Nyein Chan, 27, said that he, for one, was willing to continue the fight for years to come.

“I’ve had a strong feeling since school. The NLD policy is to protect and serve the people,” he said.

“They will not change it this time,” said the youthful shoe seller, proudly wearing the opposition’s trademark red headband. “But I want them to change it in my children’s lifetime, at least.”

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