Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Burma. / Khin Maung Win, European Pressphoto Agency
BEIJING - As peace talks to end one of the world's longest-running civil wars resume in Burma, pro-democracy activists are pushing the military-led government to give up one of its cherished powers: the right to veto any reforms it doesn't like.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by the Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, says 5 million of Burma's 60 million citizens have signed a petition delivered to Parliament this week that calls for changing a provision in Burma's Constitution that grants the military an effective veto over any revision of the undemocratic constitution it imposed on the country in 2008.
The ultimate goal of the NLD, the main opposition party: the chance that Suu Kyi could become president when elections are held next year in Burma, officially known as Myanmar.
"Without a constitutional amendment, we can't go to a democratic, federal country," said rebel-turned-politician Dr. Manam Tu Ja, a leader of the Kachin people, who have struggled against the central government for more than 50 years.
"This petition is good for the country, and very important for the peace process and for change in Myanmar, but it's just a petition," he said. "I am unsure the government will accept it or listen to it."
Washington is pressing the government to listen. On a visit to Burma last week, Secretary of State John Kerry urged its leaders to make continued progress on Burma's democratic transition and proceed with constitutional changes to ensure that the widely anticipated 2015 elections are free and fair.
After decades of stifling rule by a military junta, Burma in recent years has begun a remarkable transformation, freeing political prisoners, allowing opposition parties into parliament and lifting censorship. Such steps remain unthinkable across the border in China, a longtime ally of the Burmese regime.
On Friday in Burma's largest city, Yangon, peace talks resumed. News reports said the government has agreed to adopt a federal system as part of a cease-fire accord with 16 armed ethnic groups. The apparent concession would meet a key demand of rebel groups who have spent decades defending their autonomy in large swathes of Burma's borderlands.
Government critics say more reforms are imperative, as the military still dominates through the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and has a veto-wielding 25% of seats in the legislature. The constitution, which Suu Kyi has called "the most difficult constitution in the world to amend," includes clauses specifically drafted to make Suu Kyi ineligible to run for president because she lacks a military background and her two children hold foreign passports.
The petition to change the constitution will have some impact on the parliamentary committee expected to submit recommendations for a vote this year, said Wai Yan Phone, an editor at the Myanmar Knowledge Society, a Yangon non-profit that publishes books on human rights and democracy.
"The military and the USDP could allow some articles to be changed, but I don't think they will agree to amend all the critical articles," including the military veto, he said. "It will be a heated issue, and a lively debate in parliament, but it's 50-50 if those articles will be amended."
After a flurry of reforms since 2010, the pace has stalled. "Initially the momentum was very fast and obvious, but the changes are getting a bit slow now," said Thant Thaw Kaung, a publisher and book seller in Yangon.
As a publisher, Thant welcomes the end of censorship and hopes his philanthropic work, such as helping typhoon victims, will be easier after parliament passed a law on non-profits last month. But he noted ongoing restrictions on the media, the military's powers under the constitution and doubts over how effective international monitoring of next year's elections will be.
In a positive change for the art community, government officials no longer interview artists and check all exhibition content, said Nathalie Johnston, an American gallery director in Yangon. Yet there remains widespread skepticism about whether the 2015 elections will be free, she said.
If Aung San Suu Kyi can run for president, "everybody will vote for her, as people feel extraordinarily connected to her," Johnston said.
But Wai Yan Phone says Suu Kyi's election is not the highest priority.
"The majority of the people will be satisfied if the military, USDP and NLD share power in which the opposition have a bigger share of power, the country becomes more democratic and the people enjoy more human rights," he said. "People may be eager for her to become president, but it's not at the top of everything."
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