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Politics

The fight for Myanmar's constitution

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses constitutional reform rally in Yangon on May 17. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

YANGON -- The Lady wants to be President. The constitution says otherwise. Roughly 18 months from national elections that will determine Myanmar's next president, opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi does not have much time to seek changes to rules that bar her from the highest office.

     Myanmar's military-backed government has been reluctant to support changes to the charter, and a parliamentary committee on constitutional reform is moving slowly. In response, Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), has taken her "constitutional change" campaign to the streets, teaming up with high-profile former student dissidents at rallies in Myanmar's two biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, in mid-May.

     Since declaring her desire in 2012 to become Myanmar's next president, Suu Kyi has intensified her campaign to have the country's 2008 constitution amended. Her main concern is Article 59f, which bars anyone from the presidency whose parents, spouse or children hold foreign citizenship. Suu Kyi's late husband was British and her two sons hold U.K. citizenship.

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Crowd reacts to Aung San Suu Kyi's exhortation to persuade the army to change the constitution (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

     Like many other critics, the NLD leader also believes the charter -- railroaded through a hasty national referendum in 2008 after a devastating cyclone that killed an estimated 147,000 people -- gives the army too much say in running the country.

     The NLD is Myanmar's biggest opposition party and is expected to win the majority of parliamentary seats in the 2015 poll. Depending on the numbers -- and on alliances with smaller parties if necessary -- that outcome would mean Suu Kyi would, if the law allowed, most likely become Myanmar's next president.

The personal factor

The trouble for Suu Kyi is that the personalized tinge to her constitutional reform campaign is open to charges of egoism. Many people believe constitutional reform involves numerous issues, beyond whether a particular person can be president.

     The opposition leader has recently begun to emphasize her opposition to aspects of a charter that gives the army 25% of all parliamentary seats, in both national and local legislatures, and a veto on constitutional change.

     In a recent speech to about 20,000 supporters in Mandalay, the capital of the Burmese kingdom before it fell to British invaders in the 19th century, Suu Kyi accused the military of incompetence and insisted it was time it relinquished some political power.

     "The government has always said the Burmese (Myanmar) still don't deserve democracy. They (the military) have ruled the country for nearly 50 years, and if they have failed to educate people the norms of democracy during that period, they'd better not keep governing the country now," she told the cheering crowd.

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     They were strong words from a woman, who despite being kept under house arrest for nearly 15 years by the army, has since her release declared her fondness for that very same institution. Family ties matter -- the army was founded by her father, Gen. Aung San. The late general was a nationalist hero who fought with and then against the invading Japanese during World War II. He was also hostile toward, and then allied with, the colonizing British.

     Just a day before her Mandalay appearance, Suu Kyi made a subtle appeal to soldiers, beseeching them to serve the Myanmar people rather than rule them. Speaking in a public park in north-central Yangon on a muggy Saturday morning, she appealed to an estimated 10,000 people to reach out to the troops.

     "Please raise your hand if you can convince a soldier to start constitutional reform," she asked the crowd, most of whom responded by pointing a finger into the air and cheering.

     The audience at the Yangon rally echoed Suu Kyi's message, that constitutional change is about more than one person's political ambitions.

     "This (gathering) is not for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become president," said Htin Kyaw, a grey-haired NLD supporter, using a traditional honorific. "The constitution does not represent the wishes of the people."

     Nyein Nyein Aung, a tour guide who came to hear Suu Kyi that day, said amending the constitution's Article 436 should be the first priority. That is in keeping with the NLD's recent message, that constitutional reform is not just about their leader's eligibility for the presidency, but about reducing the military's political role.

     Article 436 sets out the convoluted means by which certain parts of the constitution can be amended. As it stands, changing provisions such as Article 59f requires more than 75% of lawmakers to vote in favor -- in other words, some of the appointed military members of parliament would have to vote for the change -- followed by a simple majority in a nationwide referendum.

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     Changing 436 first, however, means getting the army to cede its own veto over constitutional change -- an unlikely scenario that has been likened to "turkeys voting for Christmas."

     But that is what the NLD and its supporters want. "If 436 can be changed we can change the other parts. We need to change that first," said Nyein Nyein Aung.

New alliances, old issues

The May 18 rally took place at the same sandy Yangon playground where Suu Kyi gave speeches during a doomed 1988 revolt against army rule, which launched her political career. And there were other links to those heady but deadly days of 26 years ago, with Suu Kyi sharing a stage with Min Ko Naing, the student leader of the 1988 revolt.

     The NLD and the former students have had a sometimes fractious relationship, but are now working together on implementing constitutional change. In an impassioned speech, Min Ko Naing described the constitution as "a bad inheritance from the military dictatorship."

     But constitutional reform, if it comes, will be slow -- probably too slow for "the Lady," as Suu Kyi is widely known. A parliamentary committee set up to consider amending the constitution and backed by the powerful House Speaker Shwe Mann, another presidential aspirant, has another year to make proposals. Even if that deadline is met, it will be just six months, maybe less, before the 2015 elections, although the date is yet to be set.

     By-elections for 30 seats, are scheduled for later this year. The contests will give both the NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the two main parties, a chance to dip their toes in the electoral waters ahead of 2015.

     Elections and constitutional reform are not the only issues facing Myanmar's government and political parties. The government is working frantically to finalize a nationwide ceasefire with numerous armed ethnic militias, with many talks being held in Yangon and other locations.

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     And there is the tangled, complex task of reforming Myanmar's business laws, many of which are outdated, as well as the increasingly urgent need to facilitate investment in an economy that has fallen far behind even low-wage regional neighbors such as Vietnam.

     In other words, Myanmar has an array of political and policy challenges besides constitutional change -- as important as that may be. The NLD therefore faces a fight to ensure that reform does not get put on the backburner or that the electorate -- focused on the day-to-day grind of life in a country where less than 30% of people have electricity -- pushes back.

More issues ahead

"With the ongoing peace negotiations and the upcoming by-elections dominating local and international attention, the NLD is working hard to ensure constitutional reform doesn't slip off the agenda," Andrew McLeod, a constitutional law scholar at Oxford University, said.

     Alongside so many pressing issues, the NLD perceives a need to bolster public support to keep the reform agenda alive, supplementing the recent rallies with a nationwide petition launched on May 26, when local celebrities joined Aung San Suu Kyi. But "people power" is not guaranteed. Not yet, at least.

     "They (NLD leaders) face a difficult environment: to target 59(f), as they had done previously, risks accusations of self-interest; to focus on the amendment procedure (Article 436) is to threaten the military directly," McLeod said.

     The government, which previously said it was open to change, is pushing back. President Thein Sein -- who may or may not seek to renew his presidency after 2015 -- pre-empted Suu Kyi's Mandalay rally with a midweek visit. He warned that the constitution reform drive could spark unrest.

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     In turn, the Election Commission reprimanded the NLD, accusing it of "challenging the army," while the military made its own position clear back in March. "The military should be responsible for protecting the current constitution," Commander in Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech.

     There could be an element of self-interest in the military leadership's resistance to amending the 2008 constitution. The leader of the army's pivotal 25% bloc of army seats in parliament, Brigadier Gen. Wai Lin, said last November that those MPs could nominate the army chief as president after the 2015 elections.

     Whether this could propel the current military chief toward the presidency depends partly on whether the constitution, particularly Article 436, is amended in the meantime.

     On May 21, members of the parliamentary committee tasked with recommending constitutional reforms said they would ask fellow MPs to amend Article 436. The big question though is whether more than 75% of MPs vote for this change, ahead of the 2015 elections. The even bigger question is whether the resolute opposition leader will settle for less. 

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