Friday 22 Feb 2019 | 09:09 | SYDNEY
Friday 22 Feb 2019 | 09:09 | SYDNEY

The Lady, the constitution and Myanmar's political manoeuvring



24 June 2014 13:11

'If an (army) officer wants to engage in politics he should leave the military'. The statement by Aung San Suu Kyi last month was the strongest yet in the war of words in the lead-up to the country's 2015 elections.

In mid-May 'the Lady', as she is known locally, and her supporters held mass rallies in Myanmar's two largest cities. The rallies attracted over 15,000 people demanding amendments to the 2008 constitution. Their main gripe is over Article 436 and Clause 59F. The former gives the military (which wrote the constitution) an effective veto over any amendment; the latter bars the Lady from the presidency. 

Constitutional reform has been one of the most debated issues in Myanmar this year. Much of this chatter has been driven by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. 

The constitution bars anyone whose spouse or offspring 'owe allegiance to a foreign power' from becoming president or vice president. Aung San Suu Kyi's late husband, who died while she was under house arrest, was a British citizen, as are her two sons from the marriage. Thus, Clause 59F (also known as the Suu Kyi Clause) prohibits her from occupying the highest office. 

On 13 June, a 31-member parliamentary committee (comprised mainly of ruling USDP-party members) submitted its findings on the proposed amendment to Clause 59F. They voted not to change the clause, dealing a major blow to Aung San Suu Kyi's presidential ambitions. 

But Aung San Suu Kyi is stoical and continues to occupy the moral high ground, saying in the wake of the decision: 'Whether or not I become the president in the future depends on the will of the people, their will with regard to amending the constitution and their will with regard to whom they wish to choose as a president.' 

These sentiments have been supported by many in the international community.

The US State Department last week echoed Aung San Suu Kyi's words. Washington also upheld some minor sanctions against Myanmar, demanding that further reform was needed before they would be lifted, including constitutional amendments. 

In organising these mass rallies and upping the rhetoric around the discussion of constitutional amendments, Aung San Suu Kyi has challenged the military establishment to change its role in the country. It's a challenge that has come too soon for some. The powerful figurehead and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, is unmoved. He argued in an Armed Forces Day speech in March that the Tatmadaw (the armed forces) was 'mainly responsible for safeguarding the constitution'.

Concern over sovereignty is the chosen argument of the naysayers to the amendments. This is sensitive issue, with bubbling ethnic tensions and a violent and highly volatile situation in Rakhine state with ongoing persecution of the Rohingya, locally known as Bengalis. Any change to the constitution would likely open a Pandora's Box, opening calls for a complete rewrite. Many would want a debate on a new Panglong agreement, a federal system, which has long been popular among ethnic groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi's options have narrowed. People in Yangon have begun talking about a repeat of the 1990 failed elections (where she won in a landslide before the military junta disallowed the result). And with big brother neighbour Thailand recently suffering another coup d'etat, many are also worried of a similar regression in Myanmar.

As such, Aung San Suu Kyi must delicately and inclusively navigate a path forward. This has proven difficult. The daughter of the country's independence hero Aung San, a military leader himself, she has often tried to win support in the military by evoking his memory: 'I am very fond of the army because I've always thought of it as my fathers army…I was taught that my father was the father of the army and that all soldiers were his sons and therefore they were part of my family'. While such conciliatory words may placate some in the military, they test Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters, many of whom were imprisoned and tortured by the military junta. 

Indeed, the inclusion of her NLD party in the 2012 by-elections gave the country's transition legitimacy. Until then it was seen by many as a reshuffle of military men. Aung San Suu Kyi played her best hand early, and played it before the constitution had been amended.

In 2015 she will be 70 years old, so the elections will likely be her last roll of the dice for the top job. It is not surprising then that Aung San Suu Kyi is fighting to run in the elections, but even if she does run, she may not get a clear or decisive victory. Under the constitution a candidate for president must win 50% support from parliament before they can hold the position. The NLD (and the ruling USDP for that matter) will need to form alliances or claim new seats to reach this threshold.

In addition to the 25% of the legislature's parliamentary seats held by the military, 31% of seats come from seven ethnic states, where votes will go on ethnic party lines. That leaves 44% of seats from seven regions in the country's central and south to be split between the USDP and the NLD. As such, ethnic parties will likely have the controlling voice in the outcome of the country's next president. If Aung San Suu Kyi cannot run, then her party will have to start testing other possible leaders. The party is often criticised for having a shallow pool of political talent.

In March, Thein Sein said in a speech to parliament: 'There is also the need for our armed forces to continue to be included (at) the political negotiation tables in finding solutions to our political issues. We will be able to steadily reduce the role of our armed forces as we mature in democracy and should there be progress in our peace building efforts.'

This balancing act between stability and progress is one all actors have hidden behind at some point in recent months. As political manoeuvring continues over the coming months, the same act will continue. Unfortunately for Aung San Suu Kyi, the balance isn't in her favour. 

Photo by Flickr user UNDP.

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