Rally hears raft of grievances against Myanmar regime

- Illegal gathering in Mandalay sees farmers, monks and students gather.

By Joshua Carroll

YANGON, Myanmar (AA) – Around a thousand activists including farmers, Buddhist monks and students gathered for an illegal rally in Myanmar’s second city of Mandalay Friday, local media reported, in a display of frustration at faltering democratic reforms.

Organizers called for the country's military-drafted constitution to be abolished, for greater land rights and for more progress in reforms started by the quasi-civilian government in 2011.

They held the meeting without permission from authorities, facing the possibility of imprisonment under the country’s draconian assembly laws.

With a landmark general election due later this year, frustration is growing among Myanmar’s democracy activists, who in 2011 were promised sweeping changes aimed at moving the country towards open elections after 50 years of military dictatorship.

Although President Thein Sein’s government has relaxed press censorship, freed hundreds of political prisoners and allowed political demonstrations, human rights abuses and attempts to stifle free expression are still commonplace in Myanmar.

The country’s 2008 constitution is for many a potent reminder that the military still maintains absolute power despite the new government’s nominally civilian status.

The charter guarantees unelected generals a quarter of all seats in parliament, giving the military an effective veto over many important legislative changes as a 75 percent majority is required to amend the constitution.

Sayardaw U Thawbita, a Mandalay-based monk who took part in a 2007 pro-democracy uprising known as the Saffron Revolution, took to the podium at Friday’s rally to call for the constitution to be abolished.

That stance is stronger than the one taken by the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, which has focused its campaign efforts on amending the charter.

The party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is barred from standing for president in this year’s election because of a clause in the constitution forbidding Myanmar’s leaders from having foreign relatives. Her two sons are British.

Another speaker, U Arriyawuntha, accused the government of orchestrating religious violence “to divert the anger of the citizens and to maintain their power,” the Irrawaddy news website reported.

Hundreds have died and tens of thousands have been displaced in anti-Muslim rioting that has shaken the country since mid-2012.

Many farmers at the event decried continuing land rights abuses by the military. Last month, a farmer named Khin Win was shot dead during clashes between police and protestors at a controversial copper mine project in Letpadaung.

Amnesty International said in November that thousands of farmers are threatened with forced eviction after their land was acquired by the mine project during a "flawed process."

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