Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow?at the Griffith Asia Institute.
One question uppermost in the minds of many who attended last week's Lowy Institute's panel discussion on Burma (event video above) was whether Aung San Suu Kyi might become president when Thein Sein's five-year term expires in 2015. There is no simple answer to this question, but it may be helpful to look at some of the challenges that the popular opposition leader would need to overcome for her to be president.
She is sometimes reluctant to say so, but it is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi wants to become president of Burma. Her own ambition and profound sense of destiny aside, she will turn 70 in 2015 and, if she misses her chance, there may not be another. Several legal and procedural steps would need to be taken before she can bid for the top job, but the key factor will be the attitude of the armed forces (Tatmadaw).
Predicting Burma's future is always a risky proposition but, looking ahead, two possible scenarios present themselves. One reflects the hopes of millions of people inside and outside the country. The other reflects their fears.
Under the first scenario, Burma's election laws would be revised and the electoral rolls updated in anticipation of a national poll in 2015. If it is free and fair, there is little doubt that the National League for Democracy (NLD) would win a large majority. Not only is there strong support for political change, but Aung San Suu Kyi remains enormously popular. The NLD's campaign slogan in the 2012 by-elections — 'a vote for the NLD is a vote for Aung San Suu Kyi' — saw the party win most of the available seats.
More importantly, the 2008 constitution would have to be amended. Other parts of the charter are relevant, but the main obstacle to an Aung San Suu Kyi presidency is clause 59(f). Under this provision, the president cannot have any children who are the citizens of a foreign country, nor can their children's spouses be foreigners. Aung San Suu Kyi's two sons are British subjects and both are married to non-Burmese citizens. Until this clause is amended, she cannot become president — as was doubtless its intention.
Consideration is being given to amending the constitution. Aung San Suu Kyi has declined to discuss the possibility of specific changes to clause 59(f), but it is apparently a subject of debate within official circles. The Government has stated that it does not have a problem with Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president, but the majority Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) has expressed opposition to the idea. Under the first scenario, however, more than 75% of the parliament would vote in favour of the relevant amendment, clearing the way for Aung San Suu Kyi to be a candidate.
The final step in this process would be for the president to be chosen by an electoral college consisting of members of both houses of the national parliament. Assuming the successful amendment of the constitution, and an NLD landslide in the 2015 elections, this should not present any real problems. Even if opposed by the 25% of parliament reserved for serving military officers, the NLD should have the numbers to vote Aung San Suu Kyi into the country's highest office, probably in early 2016.
The second — and possibly more likely — scenario delivers a completely different result.
The Tatmadaw has loosened its grip on national politics, but it remains the most powerful political institution in the country. The constitution guarantees it a leading role in Burma's national affairs, something Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing reaffirmed at the annual Armed Forces Day parade in March. Should the military leadership and its supporters in government and parliament oppose Aung San Suu Kyi's elevation, then it is difficult to see her becoming president.
The easiest way for them to prevent her candidacy would be to oppose any changes to clause 59(f) in the constitution. The legal requirement for 'more than' 75% of all MPs to vote in favour of an amendment gives the military bloc an effective veto over constitutional change.
The Tatmadaw's views about Aung San Suu Kyi are mixed. Past voting patterns suggest that many in the ranks support her and support the NLD's campaign for a genuine democracy. But others seem to worry that she plans to reduce defence spending, dismantle the apparatus that has sustained the armed forces for decades, remove the protections granted by the constitution and deny them their guardianship role. Some officers are reportedly also concerned about her closeness to foreign powers and her past readiness to use them to support her domestic political agenda, for example by imposing economic sanctions.
Other presidential candidates are likely also to play a role. Despite poor health, Thein Sein may seek a second term. Another contender could be Shwe Mann, Chairman of the USDP and Speaker of the lower house. Tatmadaw chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing may also throw his hat into the ring. As former or serving generals, all three would probably be considered safer bets by the armed forces hierarchy than a civilian democrat leading a fractious and inexperienced party which has been highly critical of the former military government and its carefully crafted constitution.
All this is known to Aung San Suu Kyi. It has probably been with such issues in mind that she has publicly acknowledged the Tatmadaw's important political role and its autonomy in military affairs. While calling for constitutional amendments to strengthen democracy in Burma, she has tried to reassure the armed forces leadership that she does not pose a threat to their interests. This has alienated some of her supporters but, if she manages to win the Tatmadaw's trust, it would maintain the momentum of the current reform program and possibly help open the path to the presidency.
Rumours are swirling around Burma at present about various deals that would permit the relevant part of the constitution to be amended prior to the national elections. However, 2015 is still a long way off, and such an outcome is far from certain. Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president, and leading a government and a parliament dominated by the NLD, is not a prospect that everyone in Burma looks upon favourably. Over the next two years, the only guarantee is that there will be more than a few people working hard to prevent that from happening.