In Myanmar, the devil really is in the detail.
Close scrutineers of the country’s new constitution, due to be put to a referendum next month, are wondering whether the omission of four key words is just a typographical error or a dastardly trick by the military junta to keep power forever.
In a widely published outline of the charter, Myanmar’s voters were led to believe that changing the constitution would need approval from 75 percent of parliament and then a simple majority — “more than half of all eligible voters” — in a referendum.
But when the document leaked out a week ago, many were surprised to see constitutional tweaks would need approval from “all eligible voters,” a proviso that in reality makes amendments impossible in the country of 53 million people.
Whether the omission of “more than half of” is deliberate or accidental is unclear, especially since Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, in a rare news conference last month, said the constitution would be open to gradual improvement after next month’s referendum.
Some junta opponents who were ready to swallow the army-drafted charter, if only because it could be changed later, were alarmed by the omission and have decided to vote “no” in the plebiscite.
“We were surprised to see the discrepancy,” said a retired lawyer, who did not wish to be named. “All my friends who had said having a constitution would be better than having no constitution have changed their minds.”
Another sentence that appears to have been slipped in at the last minute is an amnesty clause protecting any members of the State Peace and Development Council, as the junta calls itself, from future legal action.
Myanmar’s Prime Minister General Thein Sein said next month’s referendum, which gives sweeping powers to the armed forces, was not designed to benefit the military, state media said yesterday.
“The referendum is not for one person, the Tatmadaw [the military], one party and one association, but for seeking unanimous approval for a constitution,” he said.
He told the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper the proposed basic law “is instrumental for building a new democratic nation that people long for.”
“The emergence of the state constitution is the duty of all citizens of Myanmar,” he said.
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