The National League for Democracy (NLD) and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society on Wednesday presented Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann with a petition calling for constitutional reform that was signed by nearly 5 million people across Burma.
88 Generation leader Ko Ko Gyi urged Parliament, which is dominated by former junta members and military officers, to seriously consider the political implications of the call of millions of citizens for reforms to the undemocratic 2008 charter.
“We want the public’s demands to be heard,” he said. “We follow [parliamentary] procedure; it is the House Speaker who has to now inform lawmakers [about the petition].
“When they cast their vote [on constitutional amendments], lawmakers must respect and value the public demands. They must respect it. If their decision goes against the public’s demands then they should have explanations about their objections to [amending] Article 436,” Ko Ko Gyi said.
However, a senior ruling party member was dismissive about the opposition’s petition on Thursday and questioned the public’s knowledge of the Constitution.
Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker Tin Maung Oo said the petition would “to some extent” have political implications, but he went on to claim that, “There are few people who actually read the Constitution and are aware of the benefits and disadvantages of it.”
“I talked to a Burma representative from the [International] Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Naypyidaw, and I told him I believe that only 10 percent of the population understands the issues involved with the Constitution,” he said, adding that he also doubted the authenticity of some of the collected signatures.
“I had an experience with a taxi driver in Yangon who I recently talked to. He admitted that he signed the petition for amendments to Article 436 at about 10 different places,” said Tin Maung Oo, who is on a USDP-dominated Lower House committee that is studying constitutional reforms.
Ko Ko Gyi took issue with the USPD lawmaker’s claims, saying, “We have tried to get an accurate number of [supporting] signatures by meeting with the public and informing them about the advantages and disadvantages.”
He said the public felt strongly about the 2008 Constitution and a large number of signatures had been collected in relative short period despite efforts by some local authorities to hinder the campaign.
Shwe Mann told reporters on Tuesday, ahead of the handing over of the petition, that it could have an impact on Parliament’s considerations of constitutional reforms, saying, “This is relevant to constitutional change. Parliament listens to the people, and that could have significance when it comes to constitutional reform.”
The USDP chairman and a Parliament Speaker, who reportedly has good relations with Suu Kyi but also eyes the presidency, has occasionally spoken out about reforms to the charter, but appears to have no fixed position on the changes. In July, he told the media that the petition would have no bearing on the reforms as this was under the authority of the Parliamentary Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee.
Ba Shein, a Lower House Arakan National Party MP, said it was now up to Shwe Mann to decide how the petition is brought for consideration in Parliament.
“The House Speaker can either pass this petition to the parliamentary commission [on constitutional reform] or inform Parliament directly, he has the power to do something with this,” he said, before adding that he had little hope that the USDP and military MPs would make significant changes to the charter.
In recent months, NLD chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi and the 88 Generation activists addressed public rallies and collected 4,953,093 signatures from 301 townships across the nation in support of amendments to Article 436, a clause that stipulates that constitutional reform requires more than 75 percent of parliamentary votes, giving an effective veto to the military MPs.
The Constitution is widely viewed as undemocratic as it grants the army direct control over a quarter of Parliament seats and blocks Suu Kyi from any future presidency because her sons are British nationals.
The party and the activists joined forces in February to begin a nationwide public campaign to call for amendments to the military-drafted charter, after months of talks between Suu Kyi and the USDP, a party filled with former junta members, had yielded no results.
The parliamentary committee has said it would discuss amending Article 436 and a number of other articles, but decided on June 12 that it was unwilling to amend Article 59 (f), landing a blow to Suu Kyi’s hopes of holding presidential office.