PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — Participants in a ruling party demonstration against constitutional reforms, held in the Irrawaddy Delta this weekend, said they were misled about the nature of the event.
Villagers from Zalun Township told The Irrawaddy that were invited to join a lucky draw to win Buddha statues and were unaware that they appeared to be supporting the position of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the Burma Army.
“I have no idea what they are protesting for. They thrust papers in our hands and ordered us to shout what was written on it,” said a man from Kyon Khamon village, who declined to be named out of fear for retribution by authorities.
“We are here because they said they would hold a lucky draw for Buddha statues. We simply didn’t know in advance we would be joining a demonstration,” he said during an interview at the rally.
About 3,000 people joined the event organized by the USDP on Saturday, where the protestors were seen holding up banners stating that the Constitution’s Article 59(F) should not be amended.
The article bans Burma’s main opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her sons are British nationals. It is one several controversial clauses in the military-drafted charter from 2008, which gives the Burma Army great political powers and provides immunity for crimes committed by the former military regime.
According to Zalun township residents at the rally, only 500 out of 3,000 participants were from the USDP, while the rest were Buddhist villagers who were drawn to the event as it was billed as a religious event where statues would be handed out.
Nyan Lin, an Upper House USDP lawmaker from Irrawaddy Division, claimed the demonstration had been a public rally where local people had expressed their political demands.
“When a country opens up more, people have their right to express what they think. The Zalun demonstration is a reflection of what they think is right,” Nyan Lin said. Asked about the incentive his party had offered participants, he said, “I didn’t know about it until you asked me.”
Lin Thu, information officer from National League for Democracy (NLD) in Irrawaddy Division, said the USDP had misled the rural people in the Delta about the event. “They mustn’t act like this. Any protesters or demonstrators should be allowed to freely follow their hearts,” he said.
Since last year, Suu Kyi and her NLD have begun campaigning for reforming the Constitution and she has called on the Burmese public to join the campaign. In recent months, the nationwide campaign has intensified and the influential 88 Generation Student activists group have joined Suu Kyi. Last weekend, they jointly held rallies in Rangoon and Mandalay that drew tens of thousands of supporters.
The government has shown concern over the nationwide campaign and President Thein Sein has said constitutional reform should be done “gently,” and that the military should retain its role in politics.
Chief Minister of Irrawaddy Division Thein Aung said earlier this month that the Constitution should not be changed as there are few weaknesses that could hurt the interest of the people and country.
During military rule in Burma, the USDP mobilized apparent public support for the army through its mass movement, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which comprised tens of thousands of civil servants, army members and others associated with the regime.
Until it was dissolved following the 2010 elections, the army used the USDA to hold mass rallies denouncing Suu Kyi and her party.