Myanmar's Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee recently voted down a bid to change Article 59(f) of Myanmar's 2008 Constitution, which prevents Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) from running for president because of her 'allegiance to a foreign power' (she was married to a British citizen and her children are British citizens). This topic has already received attention on The Interpreter from Elliot Brennan and Andrew Selth. Derek Tonkin, responding to Elliot's post, raised some interesting scenarios on Network Myanmar.
The committee's decision also drew responses from ASSK and the US Government, both of which raise interesting questions about the proposed constitutional changes and assumptions about what is best for Myanmar.
In recent months, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has organised an increasing number of protests pressing for constitutional change, mainly focusing on Article 59(f). However, it recently teamed with the 88 Generation to also address Article 436, which effectively gives the military veto power in parliament. But ASSK's main concern remains 59(f), and it is likely that a key motivation for directing efforts at Article 436 is that, if successful, it would make it easier to change 59(f).
There is still a chance that parliament may make the amendments, but the deadline for changes is drawing closer, and to pass, the amendment needs support from over 75% of the parliament followed by passage of a national referendum. Moreover, reports that a deal to change Article 436 on condition that 59(f) is not changed is not promising for ASSK.
ASSK has criticised the committee's recent decision, arguing it is 'democratically unacceptable' for a constitution to target one person (that is, her). While 59(f) has affected others as well, ASSK is currently the only candidate with stated presidential ambitions and the chance to achieve them.
But if Article 59(f) does only impact on one person, why should Myanmar prioritise changing it?
There are broader, arguably more important, constitutional issues that need to be addressed. For example, the rights of ethnic minorities, the military's role in government and relations between the national government and ethnic regions are important and affect more than one person.
By pushing these changes ahead of other, broader issues, ASSK risks being perceived as putting her own ambitions ahead of the country's best interests. This perception has already resulted in demonstrations against changing Article 59(f) in Rakhine State. It may only be a matter of time before a larger section of Myanmar society also question whether she should be president.
What if Aung San Suu Kyi is excluded?
In response to media question about the committee's decision, a US State Department spokesperson said:
Enabling the Burmese people to freely choose who they want to lead them during the critical next phase of transition will help to ensure stability in the country as the democratic transition continues.
The first part of this statement is misleading — the public votes for local candidates, not for the president. According to Article 60 of the 2008 Constitution, the Presidential Electoral College, which is comprised of three committees of parliamentary representatives, elects Myanmar's president.
The second part of the statement seems to suggest that electing ASSK would ensure stability in the 'critical next phase of transition'. This is a precarious assumption. The NLD has many seasoned activists, but little experience in politics or policy making. While this should not preclude them from working in positions of government, assuming that such leaders would ensure stability during the democratic transition in Myanmar is risky.
Alternatively, the statement can be read to suggest that preventing voters from voting for ASSK could cause instability. This has merit. If the NLD is unhappy with constitutional changes (or lack thereof), or the election outcome, it may instigate more protests and demonstrations. Or, as Derek Tonkin noted, ASSK could take an extreme approach and boycott the elections, which she has suggested is possible if she is not satisfied with constitutional changes. This would likely be accompanied by demonstrations.
Alternatively, a foreign country, unhappy with ASSK not becoming president, could lobby to reintroduce sanctions as a form of retaliation. This too could cause instability, but it would send a strong message that it put relations with ASSK ahead of relations with the Myanmar Government.
Any of these scenarios could challenge stability during the transition phase.
The constitution and foreign interference
The State Department's statement advocates for change to allow ASSK to be eligible for the presidency. ASSK has regularly sought foreign assistance and lobbying to help her change the constitution and to ensure her eligibility for president, so some international response was expected.
Myanmar's official reply to the US statement was swift: Myanmar's constitution 'is not the concern of the United States' and it was 'inappropriate' for the US to dictate how Myanmar might amend it.
This response isn't surprising. Myanmar feels strongly about perceived foreign interference. In April, for example, the Government accused the UK of trying to interfere with its internal affairs after Hugo Swire, Minister for Asia in the UK Foreign Office, summoned Myanmar's Ambassador to urge Myanmar to restore humanitarian access in Rakhine.
This issue also poses problems for the many foreign entities, including governments, wanting to be part of Myanmar's political transition. Leading up to the elections, some may want to provide assistance or 'capacity building' to local political parties. But Myanmar's recent responses to perceived foreign interference highlight the sensitivity of such activity.
There are also potential legal problems. Article 407(c) of the constitution specifically prohibits political parties from 'directly or indirectly' receiving and expending 'financial, material and other assistance from a foreign government, a religious association, other association or a person from a foreign country'. Non-compliance can result in parties being de-registered, and it is unlikely much latitude will be given, as parties have already been warned.
Considering that Article 49(f) refers to owing 'allegiance to a foreign power', foreign interference in domestic political affairs will remain a sensitive area that Myanmar officials will monitor closely leading up to the elections.
Photo by Flickr user Hanna Hinstrom.