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U.S. criticizes Myanmar military veto after law change fails

By Timothy Mclaughlin and Hnin Yadana Zaw
June 27, 2015

Yangon -- The United States said on Friday that an effective legislative veto held by Myanmar's military was undemocratic and reiterated calls for changes to the constitution, a day after lawmakers from the armed forces bloc rejected any significant amendments to the charter.

Washington has re-engaged with Myanmar since a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, ending 49 years of military rule, with President Barack Obama investing substantial personal effort and prestige in promoting democratic reform.

The United States has pushed for the country's military to be reined in, submitting to civilian control and stepping back from the political arena.

But Thursday's parliamentary vote, in which a proposed amendment to the veto provision failed to gain the necessary support, showed the military has no immediate plans to give up its powerful influence over public affairs.

"There are provisions in Burma's constitution, such as the lack of civilian control of the military and the military's veto power over constitutional amendments, that contradict fundamental democratic principles," a spokesman from the U.S. Embassy in Yangon said.

"It will be important to the ultimate success of Burma's democratic transformation that the constitution be amended to make it appropriate for a democratic nation."

In order for proposed changes to the military-drafted constitution to be accepted, more than 75 percent of lawmakers must support the amendment. With 25 percent of Myanmar's parliament seats reserved for unelected military MPs, the bloc has an effective veto power.

A proposed amendment voted would have seen the threshold of support lowered to 70 percent, but failed, as expected, to gain enough support with lawmakers.

Military MPs said that while they did not opposed changing the constitution in the future, the time was not right and doing so now might risk instability.

"We are making the country's situation stable by putting 25 percent military MPs in the parliament," said Brigadier General Tin San Hlaing, a military MP.

"If these articles really need to be amended, the military representatives would not hesitate to do so."

The country's military has not given any indication when it might consider stepping back from its powerful political position.

Myanmar's seven-point road map for a "disciplined democracy" was first laid out more than a decade ago and former strongman Than Shwe stepped aside in 2011, but military officials have shown little will to move away from politics.

In addition to the military's seats in parliament, the commander-in-chief appoints the ministers of defense, border affairs and home affairs.

Five of the 11 members of the country's high-level National Defense and Security Council are also active military members.

A proposed change to a separate section of the constitution, which includes a provision that bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her children are foreign citizens, also failed to pass. 

The proposed change however, would not have gone far enough in helping secure Suu Kyi's presidential hopes, as it would only have allowed for individuals with children married to foreign citizens to hold the president's office, leaving her out. 

Both amendments, if accepted, would have then needed the support of a national referendum.

Suu Kyi said after the vote that the military appeared opposed to even the slightest changes to its position. 

"If we are going to amend the constitution, we have to make big moves. Today, we can see clearly that they don't even want to make small changes," she said.

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