Almost five million people have signed a petition calling for constitutional amendments in Myanmar. The country's opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and an activist network called 88 Generation Peace and Open Society submitted the petition to parliament late last week.
The campaign, launched last May, gathered 4,953,093 signatures in more than 300 towns across Myanmar.
Myanmar’s military government drafted the nation's current constitution in 2008. Petitioners argue that there are numerous undemocratic provisions, such as Article 436, which stipulates that any constitutional amendment requires the approval of 75 percent of the parliament. In effect, this means amendments must have the parliament's total support, as a quarter of the legislature's seats are reserved for the Army.
The difficulty of changing the constitution also leaves in place Article 59(f), which bars citizens with foreign spouses and foreign-born children from running for president or vice president. This prohibition affects prominent public figures like global democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (With Article 59(f) in place, Suu Kyi cannot run for president in next year's election, because of her British husband.)
Many in opposition see constitutional reform as essential to Myanmar’s transition to democracy. The country's current president, Thein Sein, has dismissed the reform campaign as a threat to national stability, however:
Nobody wants to endure the instability that these issues are causing. It will hurt the people … I would like to urge all people and monks who love this country to protect it from instability.
Suu Kyi, on the other hand, hailed the petition as “breakthrough for democracy,” noting that the campaign is the first of its kind in Myanmar’s history. Indeed, the petition gained national popularity as students and young volunteers across the country participated in the signature drive.
Artists like Shwe Min Thar were among those who signed the petition. Min Thar urged the military to follow the will of the people:
Everything depends on the military. If they don’t change, we can’t do anything. But it is possible for them to change. The constitution is written by human beings, so it is easily within our power to change it. All of us here want to amend it. If the government follows the will of the people, then they will change it. I think it all depends on them.
During the campaign, government authorities frequently tried to intimidate volunteer workers. The Network for Human Rights Documentation recently issued a report detailing the government's harassment of campaigners:
Rather than addressing these problems, the government has repeatedly arrested protesters. Without amendments to the constitution, the growth of democracy in Burma will be jeopardized and the possibility for future human rights abuses remains.
Despite pressures on activists, Myanmar’s parliament responded to the petition by forming a committee to review the possibility of constitutional reforms. Surprisingly, the committee has suggested amending more than 450 of the constitution's 457 articles, including Article 436.
Some in the parliament, however, are hesitant to embrace the reform initiative unquestioningly, calling for the verification of the petition's five million signatures. Moreover, some of the people who wrote their names, says MP Tin Maung Oo, might not have fully understood what they were signing.
There are few people who actually read the constitution and are aware of the benefits and disadvantages of it.
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.
Khin Zaw Win, director of the policy advocacy group Tampadipa Institute, supports the reform campaign, but warns against moving too quickly:
There are quite a few items in the constitution that need to be revised. Those that would allow more decentralisation and devolution of power will be widely welcomed, especially at a time when peace talks are entering their final stage.
Constitutional reform could prove crucial to Myanmar’s democratic transition, reducing the military's voting rights in the parliament and facilitating a greater role for the opposition in the country's government.