Constitution likely to dash Suu Kyi’s hopes

Reuters, YANGON, Myanmar

Fri, Jun 21, 2013 - Page 6

Her adoring compatriots believe democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi is destined to become Myanmar’s next president, but do not bet on it.

A year ago, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was feted at home and abroad and flush from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s landslide wins in the by-elections in April last year, which swept her into parliament.

Even a military-drafted constitution designed to exclude her from the highest office seemed a surmountable hurdle.

Now the journey from political prisoner to president appears much less certain, even as her ambition is clearer than ever.

“I want to be president and I’m quite frank about it,” she told journalists at the World Economic Forum in the capital, Naypyidaw, on June 6.

However, to emerge as president after a 2015 general election, Aung San Suu Kyi, 68, must overcome challenges that would daunt a less formidable political survivor.

She must convince a military-dominated parliament to amend the constitution.

Even if she can do that, and the constitution can be amended in time, she could then face a voter backlash over her position on a violent and widening rift between her nation’s Buddhists and minority Muslims.

Her rare public expressions of support for Muslims, who have borne the brunt of waves of sectarian violence, put her in a politically fraught position in the Buddhist-majority country.

Some people wonder if the violence is being exploited by conservative opponents to chip away at her support.

To win power, she would also have to fend off two former generals who covet the top spot. The first is Shwe Mann, the influential speaker of Myanmar’s lower house.

The other is the popular incumbent President Thein Sein, whose quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011 after nearly half a century of military rule and launched a series of political and economic reforms. Thein Sein might seek a second term, despite health concerns.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s most immediate problem is the constitution.

It bars anyone married to a foreigner or who has children who are foreign citizens. Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, the late British academic Michael Aris, had two children, who are British.

“By all accounts, it was drawn up with her in mind,” Andrew McLeod, a professor at Sydney Law School and deputy director of the Myanmar Constitutional Reform Project, said of the constitution, drawn up under the former military junta.

Any constitutional amendment would require 75 percent support in parliament — no easy task when the constitution also reserves a quarter of seats for the military.

Most of the rest of the members of parliament are members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), created by the old junta and largely made up of retired military officers.

If passed by parliament, an amendment must win more than half the vote in a referendum. Some analysts say there just is not enough time to do all that before the 2015 election.

Even if she can pull off the amendments, the reality of partisan politics could threaten Aung San Suu Kyi’s presidential hopes.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the hero of the campaign for independence from Britain, faces pressure internationally to defend the persecuted, including Muslims. However, when she does, her once-unassailable popularity is threatened.

For Aung San Suu Kyi the presidency would crown a remarkable life.

The military put her under house arrest in 1989 following the suppression of pro-democracy protests. The NLD swept a 1990 election by a landslide but the junta ignored the result and kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 of the next 20 years.

She was released in November 2010, a week after a general election, widely regarded as rigged, swept the USDP to power. The NLD boycotted the election as undemocratic.

The EU and US have lifted or suspended most sanctions against Myanmar, although Washington warned they could be reimposed if it backtracked on reform.

Denying Aung San Suu Kyi a crack at the presidency could suggest to the world that Myanmar is doing just that, McLeod said.