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Myanmar president enacts law allowing referendum on disputed constitution

A man holds up a banner during a protest to demand the revocation of the right of holders of temporary identification cards, known as white cards, to vote, in Yangon February 11, 2015.  Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

By Jared Ferrie
February 11, 2015

Yangon -- Myanmar's president has approved a law allowing a referendum on changes to the constitution, lawmakers said on Wednesday, a move that could eventually lift what amounts to a ban on opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.

President Thein Sein's government has come under domestic and international pressure to reform Myanmar's political system, which is stacked in favour of the military, before a general election this year.

Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party have been pushing for changes to the constitution, which the military drafted.

One clause bars Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons are British citizens, a chapter U.S. President Barack Obama said made "no sense". Suu Kyi's late husband was British.

The NLD also says that the constitution grants too much political power to the military, which ruled Myanmar in brutal fashion from 1962-2011.

"Now that the law has been enacted, the Election Commission is soon expected to name a suitable date for the referendum in May," Thein Nyunt, a lower house lawmaker from the New National Democratic Force, told Reuters by telephone.

Upper house representative Aye Maung, a member of the Arakan National Party, also said the president had approved the law. 

Although some lawmakers are pushing for a referendum to take place in a matter of months, others believe that the law's enactment alone does not ensure such a vote will take place this year.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said it was aware of efforts by the government of Myanmar, which is also know as Burma, to hold a referendum, but it remained unclear whether this would occur and what subjects it would cover.

"We believe constitutional reform should reflect the will of the people in Burma (Myanmar) while respecting the right of all people living in Burma to participate in the country’s democratic process," Jen Psaki told a regular news briefing.

"We certainly hope that the reforms under consideration facilitate credible, transparent and inclusive elections that allow the people ... to pick the national and local leaders of their choice and stress the right of ethnic minorities ... and increase civilian control of the military, including by removing the military’s veto power over constitutional amendments."

Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based independent political analyst, said the cost and logistics make an referendum unlikely in the coming months, but it could be held at the same time as the general election.

He also said that it was not yet clear if such a referendum would focus on the contested articles.

"It is not clear which sections of the constitution would go to referendum; that would need to be decided," Horsey said.


The NLD submitted a petition with nearly five million signatures last year calling for changes to a clause that requires more than 75 percent house support to amend the charter. 

Critics say the 2008 constitution grants what amounts to a veto for the military, which has a 25 percent quota of legislative seats for unelected servicemen.

The issue of a vote on the charter has already sparked controversy, with nationalists, among them Buddhist monks, angered at a Feb. 2 decision by parliament to grant holders of temporary identification cards, known as white cards, the right to vote in a referendum should one take place, possibly paving the way to allow them ballots in the general election. 

About 300 people rallied in Yangon on Wednesday to demand the revocation of the right of white-card holders to vote in the plebiscite, arguing many were illegal aliens.

Shortly after the protest, the government announced it would revoke the white cards on May 31. It is unclear what that would mean for the millions of people who hold them.

Roughly two-thirds of the white-card holders are Rohingya Muslims, who are widely resented in the Buddhist majority nation, where many people consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. 

Though few Rohingyas are full citizens, some were permitted to vote in a referendum on the 2008 constitution. 

Rohingyas live in apartheid-like conditions in Western Rakhine state and have borne the brunt of sectarian violence that has killed hundreds in the past two and a half years. 

"They are foreigners," said Buddhist monk U Kavinda. "It's completely senseless to grant these aliens the right to vote. We can't tolerate this."

(Writing by Martin Petty and Simon Webb; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raissa Kasolowsky and Meredith Mazzilli)

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