RANGOON — A public meeting organized by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party to push for amending Burma’s Constitution in Hakha, Chin State, was prohibited by the state government on Monday, with locals saying the refusal has had a chilling effect on political activism in the town.
Local police initially granted formal permission for the NLD, along with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, to hold a public meeting at Carson Hall in the state capital on Monday morning, but Chin State’s chief minister later reportedly told organizers that they would not be allowed to use the venue.
“We got a call from the police station yesterday, saying the chief minister refused to give permission for the meeting, without [providing] a reason. That’s why we had to shift [the meeting] to the NLD office, where only few people were able to attend,” Zo Bwae, president of the NLD’s Hakha office, told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
According to local sources, fewer than a hundred people showed up to the meeting after word of the state government’s refusal spread.
“We saw many people went to sign the petition. But people were saying they were afraid that they would be arrested if they went to the meeting because the meeting was banned by the state government,” said Salai David, a Hakha resident.
NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi has been calling for amendments to Burma’s Constitution, which was adopted after a referendum in 2008 that is widely viewed as flawed.
In collaboration with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, the opposition NLD has undertaken a petition campaign calling first for a change to Article 436, which states that key amendments to the Constitution require the approval of more than 75 percent of parliamentarians. The provision is a contentious one because 25 percent of seats in Parliament are reserved for unelected members of the military, giving that institution an effective veto over charter changes.
The NLD’s countrywide signature campaign began on Tuesday of last week and will run until July 19. The campaign’s organizers plan to submit the petition to Parliament thereafter.
In tandem with the signature-gathering effort, the NLD and 88 Generation activists are organizing rallies across the country to push their cause. The Hakha hiccup was not the first setback for the campaign.
In Mandalay last week, unknown groups circulated leaflets that read, “We cannot accept the amendment of Article 436 to prevent foreigners from becoming our president,” an apparent reference to another constitutional provision that Suu Kyi is also campaigning to have changed, as it currently bars from presidential eligibility anyone holding foreign citizenship or who marries or has children who are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi, who is a Burmese citizen, married a British national and has two British sons.
In Tat Kone and Ywa Kaut townships, located a few kilometers from Naypyidaw, protesters with placards indicating their opposition to changing the Constitution greeted Suu Kyi on her way to Tat Kone for a public rally.
In Zay Gone ward of Rangoon’s Insein Township, a red poster saying “This area is a place of civil servants, so that no political movements are allowed” has been hung up and residents are reportedly afraid to go to the ward’s NLD office to sign the petition.
At some ministries, warnings to civil servants not to participate in political movements have also reportedly been issued.
Aung Thu, an 88 Generation leader, said the actions of local authorities were threatening the rights of citizens, pointing out that protests against amending the Constitution were allowed to go forward while pro-change rallies were being restricted or banned outright.
“Everyone has the right to express their opinion. While someone was allowed to show their disagreement, why can’t the others have the opportunity to express their agreement?” he said.
“President Thein Sein used to assure us that the country has freedom and democracy. But the actions of the local authorities are sending a different signal, showing our country has no freedom and is not practicing enduring democracy, and this will affect the country’s image,” he added.