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Sunday, May 16, 1999 Published at 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK

World: Americas

Guatemalans vote on reform

There has been heavy campaigning in Guatemala City

Voting is under way in Guatelamala on more than 50 reforms to the constitution, including a move to recognise the civil rights of Mayan Indians.

The Mayans, who represent 60% of the population, have waited 500 years for official recognition in their own country.

Other proposals include strengthening civilian control over the police - long treated as an extension of the army, abolishing the presidential guard, making federal officials more accountable to Congress, and guaranteeing funds for the judiciary.

The BBC's Mike Lanchin: "Intense campaigning this week"
The changes are part of peace agreements signed in 1996, between left-wing rebels and the Guatemalan Government, to end a 36-year civil war.

"These reforms will counteract the unjust state in which we have lived," said Cesar Augusto Teny Maquin, who represents the Q'eqchi Indians on the National Council of Mayan Education.

"The Maya have been allowed to exist as part of Guatemalan folklore, as a cultural relic, as a tourist attraction. But we are a people," he said.

Under the proposed changes, Congress would have to consult the indians before passing laws that could affect them.

Voter apathy

Mayans would have rights to visit sacred ground, and indigenous languages, once banned in schools, would be used alongside Spanish in education, healthcare and legal services.

But the vote has generated little enthusiasm among the Mayans, many of whom are not aware of what the referendum could mean for them.

The capital, Guatemala City, has seen plenty of campaigning in the past week, with politicians, community leaders and even a national football star joining the fray.

But there has been much less activity elsewhere.

"We still don't know who is for us because in the last months we haven't heard or seen any information," said Dorotea Muj, an Indian from Chimaltenango, west of the capital.

The lack of interest has led to fears of a low turn-out.

Reforms 'vital'

Nearly 70 international groups and 600 Mayan representatives will monitor the vote.

The government, the left-wing guerillas, indigenous community groups, and the Catholic church have all backed the reforms, arguing they are vital for consolidating democracy.

Those against are headed by powerful business groups, which warn of an uncertain future and perhaps a return to civil war.

Observers warn that voters may also have been put off by the murder on Thursday of a leading left-wing politician, Roberto Gonzalez, who was killed outside his home in the capital.

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