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Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi raised eyebrows Wednesday when she visited the scene of a 2003 state-backed massacre of her followers in the central Sagaing region without mentioning the incident or the role of the military junta that ran the country at the time.

The state counselor’s visit to Depayin, where some 70 supporters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party were killed 17 years earlier, came as her party’s effort to amend a constitution drafted by the military to cement its political power met defeat in parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi, dressed in black and wearing a red sarong, held public meetings with local residents in Depayin and nearby Shwebo townships.

“It is very beneficial for us to come to Depayin and talk with the local people,” Aung San Suu Kyi said at the event. “This is because we must learn the hopes, concerns, and problems of our people. At the same time, we must see the weakness of our people.”

She did not touch on the event of May 30, 2003, when a government-sponsored mob attacked her and her entourage on the outskirts of Depayin, killing at least 70 people associated with the party.

Aung Myo Kyaw of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP), a human rights NGO based in Mae Sot, Thailand, which tracks Myanmar prisoners of conscience, said the state counselor and the NLD should focus on delivering justice to those who have suffered at the hands of the military that directly ruled the country from 1962 to 2011.

“The ruling government should work on restoring justice and relief and recovery efforts for the victims of human rights violations in the past,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We can understand why she avoided this issue during her speech,” he said. “Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi might not be speaking out about it because she is a figurehead. Regardless, they [the NLD] should keep working on what they are supposed to be doing on that matter.”

Constitutional amendments

Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Depayin came as Myanmar’s parliament votes on amendments to revamp the country’s 2008 constitution, drafted by a former army junta.

Lawmakers are voting through March 20 on dozens of amendments, many of which have been proposed by the ruling NLD, to curb the military’s political power and make the charter more democratic, fulfilling a key campaign promise made during the last nationwide election five years ago.

On Tuesday, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to become president was rejected by military lawmakers, who used their effective veto to block the measure, which needed more than 75 percent of votes in favor to pass.

The NLD-proposed amendment sought to do away with Article 59(f) which bars Myanmar citizens with relatives who are foreign nationals from becoming president. It prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from taking that office because her two sons are British citizens, as was her late husband.

But the vote was doomed from the start because military-appointed lawmakers control an automatic one-fourth of the seats in Myanmar’s national parliament.

At least 493 votes in favor of the amendment were needed to pass it. Parliamentary voting records indicate that 393 lawmakers voted in favor of the measure, with 242 against.

“More than 85 percent of elected MPs voted for the measure,” said NLD lawmaker Hla Moe. “We cannot proceed with it though we received support from an overwhelming majority of elected MPs.”

It is believed that 166 military-appointed lawmakers, 40 parliamentarians from the military-backed opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and one legislator from the National Unity Party voted against the proposal during the secret ballot.

USDP lawmaker Thaung Aye called the ballot results “a victory” for Myanmar.

“This is a victory for the whole nation because this article was explicitly added to keep the sovereignty of the country in the hands of the citizens and prevent foreign interference,” he said, presenting a different take on Article 59(f).

“The ballot results show the majority of people in Myanmar accept this regulation and believe in its value,” he added.

Thaung Aye questioned the NLD’s motive in trying to amend the constitution knowing that military lawmakers would not approve.

“They have known that Article 436 of the constitution prevents the amending of the charter without the support of the majority of military-appointed lawmakers,” he said. “Despite this, the NLD insisted on constitutional reform and didn’t consult military MPs before the ballot.”

Article 436 requires that proposed changes to the constitution be supported by more than 75 percent of legislators.

‘Calculated Catch-22’

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday that the effort to repeal Article 59(f) was a “calculated Catch-22” given military lawmaker’s effective veto.

HRW also took aim at the NLD for failing to push for the repeal of repressive laws.

“[T]he NLD’s push to amend the constitution rings hollow following four years of unwillingness to tackle attainable reforms,” a statement issued by the rights organization said. “Despite its parliamentary majority, Suu Kyi’s party has failed to amend or repeal repressive laws that criminalize speech and peaceful assembly.

“Instead, it has intensified attacks on free expression, strengthening restrictive legislation and prosecuting growing numbers of journalists and activists,” it said.

In an annual report on human rights conditions worldwide during 2019, the U.S. State Department said that in Myanmar “there continued to be almost complete impunity for past and continuing abuses by the military.”

“In a few cases the government took limited actions to prosecute or punish officials responsible for abuses, although in ways that were not commensurate with the seriousness of the crime,” said the report issued on Wednesday.

Besides proposing changes to the charter, Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian-led NLD have been spearheading a series of nationwide peace talks in a bid to end seven decades of civil war in Myanmar.

But the talks among ethnic armies, the national military, and government peacekeepers, have stalled because of ongoing fighting in some of Myanmar’s remote ethnic areas and the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state, where government forces have been accused of committing atrocities against Muslims.

Reported by Khaymani Win and Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.