Aung San Suu Kyi

Millions sign petition in Myanmar urging army to curtail its power

Petition demands an end to the military's veto on constitutional reform, which could open the door to Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 8:04pm

Myanmar's opposition has gathered millions of signatures in support of changes to a constitution that bars its leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, in a show of strength ahead of elections next year.

Suu Kyi has travelled the country drawing crowds of thousands with speeches urging the military to accept a lesser political role, as her party of democracy veterans touts its moral authority in the former army-run nation.

The petition, which was launched in May, had gathered around three million signatures by early this month.

Watch: Millions back Suu Kyi call for Myanmar charter change

"In a democratic country the people's will is important. That is why this is important," Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, said.

The campaign, which ended yesterday, is focused on altering a provision that ensures the military has a veto on any amendment to the junta-era charter. To alter the constitution there needs to be support from a majority of over 75 per cent of parliament.

Unelected soldiers, who make up a quarter of the legislature, therefore have the last say on changes to the charter.

Nyan Win said he expected the clause to be altered during the current parliament, which ends later this month, and that this would enable further changes.

"It is the main door. If it opens, you'll see everything," he said.

But a member of the constitution amendment committee, which like parliament is dominated by the military and ruling army-backed party, said the petition would make no difference to its deliberations.

He said the 31-member group would release its first recommendations in the coming days, but that these are only based on suggestions received before a December deadline.

It is believed the committee has already decided not to recommend a change to the controversial provision that bars Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Myanmar's 2008 charter blocks anyone whose spouse or children are overseas citizens from leading the country - a clause widely believed to be targeted at the Nobel laureate, whose two sons are British.

Suu Kyi spent nearly two decades locked up under the junta, but now joins former generals in parliament as an MP, thanks to reforms by a quasi-civilian government that took power in 2011.

"I would like you all to consider whether getting more opportunities than ordinary citizens is really fair," she told a rally in May, earning a rebuke from the country's election commission.

Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to several Southeast Asian countries, said Suu Kyi was "desperately disappointed" by the committee's lack of support and could even consider pulling out of the election if she feels reform falls short.

"Much will depend on the personal disposition of Aung San Suu Kyi herself," he said, adding the daughter of Myanmar's independence hero is convinced "that she has been born to rule".

The United States lent support to Suu Kyi's efforts last month, saying reform "should pave the way for the Burmese to freely choose their president".

But within Myanmar "there is no support for a change to this article" outside the NLD, said independent Myanmar expert Renaud Egreteau.

He said there was an intrinsic wariness of foreign occupation, in a country that gained independence from Britain in 1948 and which has long lived in the shadow of its giant neighbour, China.

"You are touching on the heart of Burma," he said, using the country's former name. "No one wants the next president to have a Chinese wife or a Muslim husband."