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Students, police scuffle at constitution rally in Rangoon

Police confront students and activists at a rally protesting the lack of constitutional reform in parliament last week, Rangoon, 30 June 2015. (PHOTO: DVB)

Angry crowds scuffled with police in downtown Rangoon on Tuesday in a protest against the Burmese military’s veto on constitutional change, blamed for the defeat last week of a charter reform bill backed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

A few hundred passers-by joined a handful of student demonstrators calling for the removal of the unelected soldiers who make up a quarter of parliamentary seats, as they faced off against a wall of riot police, many carrying batons and shields.

Before the rally was forcibly dispersed, student leaders addressed the crowd to urge them to continue calling for constitutional reform. (PHOTO: DVB)

Burma’s parliament on Thursday voted down a bill to end the military’s effective veto on changing the country’s junta-era charter, which bars opposition leader Suu Kyi from becoming president.

The vote was seen as the last chance to try to amend the constitution ahead of a landmark election in October or November.

“Twenty-five percent in parliament — Get out! Get out!” the protesters shouted, referencing the controversial bloc of seats reserved for the military. “We want to change the constitution!”

The polls are set to be the first national elections to include Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy for a quarter of a century and the party is expected to hoover up seats, if the vote is free and fair.

But Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president because of a provision excluding those with foreign children from the top office. Her sons are British.

She urged people not to “lose hope” after last week’s parliament vote, which saw 60 percent of MPs support a tweak that would have loosened the army’s stranglehold on charter change.

Some five million people — or 10 percent of the population — signed an NLD petition to amend clause 436 of the constitution, which sets a voting threshold of 75 percent for major charter changes, thereby ensuring soldiers have the final say.

The clause was seen as the gateway to amending further elements of the charter.

Burma’s parliament continues to be dominated by the army and former generals despite reforms that ended decades of outright junta rule in 2011.

Observers say the military, who trampled on dissent and laid waste to the economy during their rule, is staunchly opposed to any further reduction of its powers.

Burma has been criticised for its handling of several student demonstrations earlier this year.

Unrest in Rangoon, officially known as Yangon, saw the use of men in plain clothes as police broke up a rally on 5 March, while authorities launched a violent crackdown the following week on a related protest in the town of Letpadan, some two hours north of Rangoon.

Dozens of young activists remain in prison following that unrest.