Myanmar's lawmakers may have to consider the overwhelming support for a petition by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party calling for an end to the military's effective veto power on amending the country's constitution, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann said Monday.
He said that although the National League for Democracy (NLD) petition, which has garnered nearly five million signatures so far, would not distract the work of a parliamentary panel that is looking into the possibility of amending the constitution, lawmakers cannot disregard the "people's voice."
“This signature campaign does not affect the Constitutional Review Joint Committee," Shwe Mann told reporters.
"But as it is related to our motto, which is 'the people’s voice is parliament’s voice, the people’s wish is parliament’s wish and parliament has to fulfill people’s expectations,' the MPs can hear and consider the people’s voice," he said.
"So it is, in a way, up to the [MPs]," said Shwe Mann, who heads the ruling United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is largely comprised of former junta generals and has been slow to accept reforms to the charter.
The NLD said the petition, organized jointly by the party and the 88 Generation students group, would be sent to the legislature for consideration next month when lawmakers return for a new session.
It calls for amendments to Article 436 of the constitution, which allows effective veto power by Myanmar’s military over proposed constitutional changes.
Article 436 effectively gives the military, which controls 25 percent of seats in parliament, a veto over constitutional amendments, since it requires more than 75 percent of parliamentary representatives to approve any change.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said that getting rid of the military’s veto is the first step needed to pave the way for other amendments.
The NLD is also calling for amendments to Article 59(F), which prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons are not citizens of Myanmar, and other clauses it deems undemocratic in the constitution.
Shwe Mann spoke to reporters after a weekend meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) talks in Naypyidaw, the Myanmar capital.
Kerry told the country's leaders to proceed with constitutional changes to ensure that elections set for next year are free, fair and credible, the Associated Press reported.
He said that to improve relations with the United States, Myanmar must make progress in its democratic transition and halt what Washington sees as backsliding on commitments to improve human rights, according to AP.
Washington lauded Myanmar for ending decades of direct military rule that resulted in the easing of some U.S. sanctions and a 2012 visit by President Barack Obama but since then, his administration has become concerned over issues such as anti-Muslim discrimination in the predominantly Buddhist nation, sectarian violence and media controls.
U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss Kerry's closed-door meetings, told AP that Kerry raised those issues in meetings with Myanmar President Thein Sein and leading lawmakers.
Obama is due to return to Myanmar in November for a summit of Asian leaders and, according to AP, the officials said Kerry had made clear to Thein Sein and members of parliament that the U.S. would look favorably on tangible measures taken to address the concerns before that visit.
The officials said Obama planned to attend the East Asia Summit regardless, but they said that until improvements are seen, it is unlikely that Washington will move to further ease sanctions enacted over the course of nearly five decades of military rule.
Kerry, in official remarks at the ASEAN meeting, said the U.S. wanted to work with Myanmar to help it overcome difficulties in the transition.
"As Myanmar tackles the challenges ahead, I want the people of Myanmar to know that they have the support and friendship of the United States," Kerry said, noting that Obama looked forward to returning to the country.
Last week, more than 70 U.S. lawmakers called on the Obama administration to impose sanctions on Myanmar's officials and others complicit in rights abuses and atrocities, saying they would oppose further concessions to the reformist government unless major progress is achieved.
Next year's elections would be a "benchmark" for the world to measure Myanmar's progress, Kerry said.
Reported by Myo Thant Khine for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.