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Myanmar President Enacts Law Allowing Referendum on Disputed Constitution

FILE - Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seen in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Nov. 13, 2014.

Myanmar's president has approved a law allowing a referendum on changes to the constitution, lawmakers said on Wednesday -- a move that could eventually lift what amounts to a ban on opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.

President Thein Sein's government has come under domestic and international pressure to reform Myanmar's political system, which is stacked in favor of the military, before a general election this year.

Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy [NLD] party have been pushing for changes to the constitution, which the military drafted.

One clause bars Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons are British citizens, a chapter U.S. President Barack Obama said made "no sense." Suu Kyi's late husband was British.

The NLD also says that the constitution grants too much political power to the military, which ruled Myanmar in brutal fashion from 1962-2011.

"Now that the law has been enacted, the Election Commission is soon expected to name a suitable date for the referendum in May," Thein Nyunt, a lower house lawmaker from the New National Democratic Force, told Reuters by telephone.

Upper house representative Aye Maung, a member of the Arakan National Party, also said the president had approved the law.

Although some lawmakers are pushing for a referendum to take place in a matter of months, others believe that the law's enactment alone does not ensure such a vote will take place this year.

"This does not mean there will be a referendum," said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based independent political analyst.

The cost and logistics make it unlikely in the coming months, but it could be held at the same time as the general election, he said.

He also said that it was not yet clear if such a referendum would focus on the contested articles.

"It is not clear which sections of the constitution would go to referendum; that would need to be decided," said Horsey.

Clauses under fire

The NLD submitted a petition with nearly 5 million signatures last year calling for changes to a clause that requires more than 75 percent house support to amend the charter.

Critics say the 2008 constitution grants what amounts to a veto for the military, which has a 25 percent quota of legislative seats for unelected servicemen.

The issue of a vote on the charter has already sparked controversy, with nationalists, among them Buddhist monks, angered at a Feb. 2 decision by parliament to grant holders of temporary identification cards, known as white cards, the right to vote in a referendum should one take place, possibly paving the way to allow them ballots in the general election.

About 300 people rallied in Yangon on Wednesday to demand the revocation of the right of white-card holders to vote in the plebiscite, arguing many were illegal aliens.

Shortly after the protest, the government announced it would revoke the white cards on May 31. It is unclear what that would mean for the millions of people who hold them.

Roughly two-thirds of the white-card holders are Rohingya Muslims, who are widely resented in the Buddhist majority nation, where many people consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Though few Rohingyas are full citizens, some were permitted to vote in a referendum on the 2008 constitution.

Rohingyas live in apartheid-like conditions in Western Rakhine state and have borne the brunt of sectarian violence that has killed hundreds in the past two and a half years.

"They are foreigners,'' said Buddhist monk U Kavinda. "It's completely senseless to grant these aliens the right to vote. We can't tolerate this."