A man wears a headband that reads '2008 constitution does not work' during a rally calling to reform Myanmar's military-scripted constitution, in Yangon on Feb. 27, 2019. Hundreds gathered in downtown Yangon in a jovial first-of-its-kind rally underpinned by its attendants' urgent desire to amend the controversial charter. (Photo by Sai Aung Main/AFP)
Buoyed by grassroots support and protests in cities like Yangon, Mandalay, Pathein and Magway in February, factions within Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) are lobbying to change the country's constitution.
The demonstrations came days after the country's parliament approved in late January an NLD-led, 45-member committee tasked with mapping out constitutional change.
The committee has since been working to draft a bill with proposed amendments to the charter, which was originally drawn up a decade ago by the military-led government to ensure the army retained control of state affairs. Critics say it gives the generals too much power. They have welcomed the work of the committee as an unprecedented step forward.
"It will take time to change it but we are committed to keep pushing for this even after the general elections in 2020," Mahn Johnny, a Catholic politician from the NLD, told ucanews.com.
Mahn, a former chief minister of Irrawaddy division, has been fighting for peace and democracy ever since the military regime pushed ahead with a referendum on the charter on May 10, 2008.
That took place just days after Cyclone Nargis smashed its way through the Irrawaddy Delta, leaving more than 140,000 people dead in its wake. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded in Myanmar.
"It wasn't appropriate for the regime to go ahead with the referendum at that time, when scores of people were dying," said Mahn, who is now 78.
When the ballots were counted, 93.82 percent of voters were found to be in favor of the new constitution.
Some expressed disbelief at this overwhelming show of support, and questioned the supposed free and fair nature of the referendum.
Mahn, a regional lawmaker for Kyonepyaw constituency in the delta, said this unfairly enshrined the Tatmadaw's role in politics under the façade of democracy. The Tatmadaw is the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar.
His party has experienced a turbulent ride since it was founded in 1988 as a core spoke in Myanmar's pro-democracy movement.
The junta declared the NLD illegal in May 2010 and ordered it to disband after it refused to register for the elections scheduled for November of that year.
It was reinstated in December 2011 and won 43 of 45 available seats in the 2012 by-elections under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Three years later, the party swept the general election to claim a supermajority in both houses of the Assembly. This led to the installation of Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel peace prize laureate, as Myanmar's first-ever state counselor.
For the last four years, she has tried to find a way to coexist with the military regime but Mahn said her wings are clipped, and the NLD hamstrung, by a charter that does not allow for a level playing field.
Of particular concern to pro-democracy campaigners is a provision that grants military MPs the power to veto any proposed charter changes, especially any amendments that would curb their political power.
The 2008 charter mandates that a quarter of all parliamentary seats must be reserved for the military. It also gives them control of key portfolios like home affairs, national defense, and border security.
The constitution also bars Suu Kyi from becoming president because she married a foreigner. She has thus been restricted to the dual roles of state counselor and foreign minister.
Kyaw Nyein, a Yangon-based lawyer, said it would be hard to change the charter given the presumed opposition this will face from both the military MPs and the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
"It will take time because ease clause and chapter will have to be scrutinized and debated," he said, fully expecting the opposition to throw up significant roadblocks at each leg.
Mahn recalls how a previous attempt by the NLD to collect signatures for charter change in May 2014, when the party ranked as the opposition, yielded over 3 million names — about 5 percent of the population.
He described the recent groundswell of support, as evidenced by the rallies that erupted in various cities at the start of this year, as "significant."
"Public rallies show the support of the public, so the NLD needs to use this people power to push for change," Khin Zaw Win, director of the Yangon-based capacity-building Tampadipa Institute, told ucanews.com.
Success will hinge on a three-pronged approach including more rallies, the parliamentary committee, and continued dialogue between Suu Kyi and military chief Min Aung Hlaing, he added.
The commander-in-chief told the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun during a rare interview that the military accepted change was needed, but said, "the important thing is no amendment should harm the essence of the charter."
However, human rights groups say the military's power must be reigned in as quickly as possible as it is responsible for human rights violations that could amount to genocide, notably in its treatment of Rohingya Muslims.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are still living in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh after fleeing Myanmar's Rakhine state to escape a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
A repatriation deal is still being worked out, as the situation on the ground in Myanmar is not yet considered safe enough for many of them to return home.
Ethnic conflict in borderlands
Myanmar has been bedeviled by ethnic conflict since it gained independence from the United Kingdom on Jan. 4, 1948.
The country has endured a de facto civil war for decades, and fighting still rages on in northern states like Shan and Rakhine, where the local ethnic population is dominant.
Observers say the only solution is to establish a federal democracy.
Manam Tu Ja, chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party, said the military leans on the argument that it cannot be dislodged until the fighting stops, in the interest of national security.
"It is very important that peace is restored first," he said.
"We must all work to stop the fighting so the military can be removed from the political sphere."
Tu Ja formerly served led the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which funds the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), its armed wing.
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