Jun 25, 2015 5:35 PM

Myanmar's parliament blocks changes to constitution

The Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) Myanmar's parliament voted against several constitutional amendments Thursday, ensuring that the military's veto power remains intact and that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president in an election this year.

The legislature ended a 3-day debate on proposed changes to the 2008 constitution, which bars Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, from seeking the presidency and gives the military an effective veto over constitutional amendments.

Changes to both those clauses were rejected in the vote, which was viewed as a final chance to lift obstacles blocking Myanmar's most famous politician from a shot at the presidency in the immediate future. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is expected to see heavy gains against the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in an election likely to take place by November. No date has been set.

"I am not surprised with the result," Suu Kyi told reporters after the vote. "This makes it very clear that the constitution can never be changed if the military representatives are opposed." She said she didn't see the vote as a loss, since the result had been anticipated, so her supporters should not lose hope.

Suu Kyi and her party had said that the current constitution needed to be amended to meet democratic norms and that the amendments were essential for a free and fair election.

"The people should not be disappointed with the decision. It is clearer now how to proceed," she told reporters after the vote, looking defiant and energetic. "The public will clearly understand who wants change and it will help the public to clearly decide who they should vote for in the election."

The NLD swept the last free general election in 1990 but the then-ruling military junta ignored the results and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest and detention for a total of 15 years.

The nation's transition from a half-century of brutal military rule to a nominally civilian government in 2011 was marked by early, fast-moving successes. Suu Kyi's 2010 release and her 2012 election to parliament were a catalyst for the West to end years of diplomatic isolation of Myanmar, also called Burma, and roll back sanctions.

But four years after President Thein Sein took office, the military has refused to loosen its grip on parliament or amend the junta-era constitution, which ensures the military's continuing influence in government. It gives the military a mandatory 25 percent of parliamentary seats, handing it veto power over any change in the constitution, which requires greater than 75 percent approval, followed by a nationwide referendum.

Thursday's vote rejected a proposal to trim the share of ballots required to amend the constitution from over 75 percent to 70 percent, a change that would essentially have removed the veto power.

The U.S. State Department said Thursday the lack of civilian control over the military and the military's veto power contradicted democratic principles. The U.S. would continue to encourage the government "to allow the people of Burma to elect freely the leaders of their choice," said Michael Quinlan, a spokesman for the department's East Asia bureau.

Two prominent voices in Congress on U.S. policy toward Myanmar said the legitimacy of the November elections was in doubt.

"Today's move by the Burmese military in the parliament only solidifies concerns that the country's upcoming elections cannot be free, fair, or credible," Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley and Republican Rep. Steve Chabot said in a statement.

Many viewed the proposed amendment, which could have paved the way for more constitutional change, as key to Suu Kyi's chances for gaining eligibility for the presidency. The opposition leader turned 70 last Friday, raising concerns that time is running out in her political career.

The parliament also rejected amending a clause that bars anyone whose spouse or children are loyal to foreign countries from becoming president or vice president. Suu Kyi's late husband and her two sons are British citizens. The proposed amendment would not have stricken the clause entirely, just dropped the reference to foreign spouses as an obstacle to candidacy.

During this week's debate, lawmakers in military uniforms said it was necessary to keep the clauses intact.

"If the person who will become the country's head of state and his or her family members owe allegiance to foreign countries, the country will indirectly fall under foreign subjugation," Brig. Gen. Tin Soe, one of 166 military appointees in parliament, told fellow lawmakers on Wednesday.

Brig. Gen Tin San Naing said Tuesday that the military's veto power helped ensure stability as the country moves away from military rule.

"Myanmar is in a democratic transition period," he said. "It has not reached its maturity in democratic practices to ensure peace and security in the country."


Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.


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