Myanmar Charter Reforms Key To Free Elections in 2015: White House

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Susan Lavery and Parameswaran Ponnudurai

A top adviser to U.S. President Barak Obama emphasized Thursday that reforming Myanmar's military-written constitution is critical to having free and fair elections in 2015.

White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that constitutional reform would allow the people of Myanmar to elect whoever they liked and protect human rights, which under the previous military junta were among the worst in the world.

Rhodes was speaking to reporters in Yangon after meetings with civil society and government officials and business leaders.

His statement came as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for greater political commitment to amend the constitution, which was formulated by the previous military junta in 2008 and prevents the Nobel laureate from becoming president.

She said the constitution could be swiftly amended if the government leaders were really committed to change.

"If relevant authorities want to amend the constitution, they don't need 30 months. It would take only 30 days to amend it. It just needs to be decided," said Aung San Suu Kyi, who has announced her intention to become president if her party wins the 2015 elections.

President Thein Sein, who took over in 2011 after more than five decades of military rule, has said that he would not stand in the way if parliament decides to amend the constitution to pave the way for Aung San Suu Kyi to bid for the presidency.

The charter has a provision blocking anyone whose spouse or children are foreign citizens from becoming president.  Aung San Suu Kyi's two sons with her late British husband hold U.K. citizenship.

Parliamentary panel

Parliament last week set up a 109-member committee to consider constitutional amendments but some warned that the panel is unwieldy, does not fully represent the pro-reform groups, and could be a halfhearted attempt merely to defuse pressure from Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) pushing for the amendments.

"We will try to amend the constitution as much as we can through the committee," Aung San Suu Kyi said, pointing out that there are only seven NLD members in the large parliamentary panel.

She said the NLD plans to hold a series of campaigns to explain to the people the need for constitutional changes.

"We should also let the people know why the NLD believes the constitution needs to be amended and what provisions should be amended."

Meaningful legislation

Rhodes said that in the longer term, enacting meaningful legislative reform is vital for Myanmar so the people can be confident that any reform is permanent.

“The story is not over here, it is just beginning,” he said, calling for healthy debate and consultations to forge reforms.

Resolving complex issues such as land disputes can only be successful if the government consults with civil society and if civil society is not only critical of the government, but also offers realistic solutions, he said.

When asked whether the government is still hesistant to implement reform, he said President Thein Sein has demonstrated his commitment to the reform agenda, but that the government currently doesn’t have the capacity to follow through on the many areas that need to be addressed.

Rhodes said the thirst for quick reforms is a universal issue, joking that he works “for a President who is also criticized for not bringing change fast enough.”

Communal tensions

The White House official acknowledged that the most immediate threat to Myanmar’s reform is the communal conflict that has broken out in several cities.

While it is clear that individuals have incited the violence between the Buddhists and Muslims, the government has shown that it is serious about addressing the problem, Rhodes said.

He pointed out that free speech can be a negative influence when it is used to incite hatred, which is why the U.S. wants to help the government develop nonviolent ways to resolve disputes and promote diversity.

He said people need to learn how to “air their differences around a table instead of in the street.”

Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Susan Lavery and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.
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