Myanmar Faces Key Test in Reform Commitment

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2014-01-21
Email story
Comment on this story
Share story
Print story
  • Print
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Email
myanmar-suukyi-phone-2013.gif
Aung San Suu Kyi speaks on the phone in Naypyidaw, Dec.13, 2013.
AFP

Myanmar will face one of its biggest tests in its commitment to reform when parliament begins grappling with a set of public proposals soon for revamping the country's military-written constitution, including one that seeks changes to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president.

A parliamentary panel which has been gathering constitutional amendment proposals from political parties, civil society groups, and members of the public for the past six months is scheduled to submit to lawmakers all its feedback by Jan. 31.

One of the most important proposals received by the 109-member parliamentary committee is an amendment to a constitutional provision that many believe was introduced by the previous military junta to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi — who was placed under house arrest by the generals for nearly two decades — from becoming president.

The 2008-written constitution's Article 59 (F), among other conditions, bars anyone whose children have foreign citizenship from becoming president. Aung San Suu Kyi's late husband was a British academic and her two adult children have British citizenship.

While many see an amendment to the provision as critical for the 2015 elections to be considered free and fair, they fear the ruling party and the military, which together dominate parliament, are not totally committed to bring about the change.

Some are of the view that even if the leaders are committed, time may not be on their side.

Constitutional amendments require the consent of more than 75 percent of lawmakers, followed by more than 50 percent approval in a nationwide referendum.

"Getting the constitution amended before the 2015 election would be a great step forward, but it requires a nationwide referendum and there may not be enough time left to reach a consensus on the amendments and hold the referendum," Lex Rieffel, a non-resident fellow at Washington-based Brookings Institution, said in a recent commentary.

Ambiguous

President Thein Sein, who had set the pace for political and economic reforms since taking over the helm in 2011, and powerful Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann have both said they have no objections to amending the controversial provision.

But the two leaders who had been top generals in the junta regime have laid down caveats which are rather ambiguous.

Thein Sein has said that “necessary measures” would need to be in place to defend “national interests.”

Shwe Mann, who is also eyeing the presidency in the 2015 elections, has stressed that any amendment should not harm the current stability, peace-making process, and democratic transition.

Adding to the uncertainty, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has asked Aung San Suu Kyi's two sons to become Myanmar citizens—a proposal which the opposition leader has described as unfair, as her two sons are above 21 years old and have the right to make their choice on citizenship.

There are also doubts about whether the powerful military, which enjoys sweeping powers under the constitution and has mandatory 25 percent control of parliament, will back the change.

Together, the military and the military-backed USDP control more than 80 percent of parliament, eclipsing the 75 percent support required for a constitutional amendment in the legislature.

Positive

Aung San Suu Kyi agrees that the government appears reluctant to amend the constitution, but remains positive.

She has made trips to the provinces to rally support for proposed constitutional amendments aimed also at giving greater powers to ethnic groups, which had been fighting with the military for decades for greater autonomy in their resource-rich states.

“I still have hope because some groups and individuals [in government] have not yet said there will be no amendment to Article 59,” she said.

But her plan for a four-way meeting between Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, the country's military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and herself has been turned down by the president, saying it was premature to have such talks when the parliamentary panel is still deliberating on the public proposals on the constitutional amendments.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing also appeared to rebuff her for criticizing the military's dabbling in politics.

When she argued recently that the military's involvement in politics under the current constitution has created "animosity" with the people, the military chief shot back that the armed forces were in politics "so that people will abide by the law in harmony with democratic practices.”

Specter of sanctions returning

Western powers who have withdrawn long-running sanctions against Myanmar following Thein Sein's reform efforts may restore the restrictions if Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to bid for the presidency in the 2015 elections, in which her National League for Democracy is widely expected to win.

Until Aung San Suu Kyi can run for President, Myanmar is no democracy, declared Britain's Parliamentary Speaker John Bewcow in an opinion piece in The Independent, a leading newspaper in his country.

"[F]or me, the simplest and most urgent reform needed ahead of the 2015 election is the Presidential eligibility clause. Now is the time to speak out about a matter that is urgent and morally serious — the right for Suu Kyi to run for President," he said.

He said that if the military chooses to block constitutional amendments, the world will demand to know why.

U.S. envoy to Myanmar Derek Mitchell said the country faces hard decisions in the coming years “and the people must feel they are being made by leaders of their choice.”

“As an observer interested in seeing this country reach its potential as a democratic state, it seems curious to me that someone who is the leader of a major political party, chair of a major parliamentary committee, who has sacrificed herself for decades as a courageous patriot committed to the success and strength of the country, someone clearly very popular with the people, will be excluded from presidential contention,” he said.

Alternatives

David Steinberg, a longtime Myanmar expert, said the United States may have to be prepared to face the prospect of 2015 elections being held without constitutional amendments—even if the polls are considered relatively free and fair.

"Consider, however, the not improbable results of those elections if foreign observers and others consider them relatively free and fair but the constitution is not amended, thus denying the international community's avatar of democracy her chance at the presidency," said Steinberg, visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

"What will the position of the United States be?" he asked. "Statesmen and politicians never like to answer hypothetical questions, but policymakers should be considering alternatives. This could be the most important future policy position on Myanmar that President [Barack] Obama will have to make."

Comments (2)
  • Print
  • Share
  • Email

Hugo

from Sydney

What is often not reported in Western Media is her relentless desire to be president at any cost she rarely speaks out against the Royhinga or any Minorities in Myanmar.

What's even more telling is the other political parties in the Govt not aligned to Military have said the same thing, she focus too much on what will benefit her and not what will benefit the people through other amendments of the Constitution... I admire Aung San Suu Kyi and always will but reform and human rights is bigger than her, and she has to come to conclusion she may never be president but she can be effective MP in the parliament and help the people that way.

Jan 26, 2014 09:52 PM

Eagle Master

from Pa(USA)

I think that a golden key for USA.Western and allies for Asia Pacifies Is changing policy on Cambodia because we to unclog the drain to allowing democracy flow through to Asia Pacifies .

Jan 21, 2014 04:20 AM