Suu Kyi's 2015 Dilemma

As the US prepares to welcome the Nobel laureate, right groups caution about the military's tight grip on power.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2012-09-12
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Aung San Suu Kyi attends a conference at the Sorbonne in Paris, June 28, 2012.
AFP

Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, who begins a long visit to the U.S. starting Monday, has been hailed as a democracy icon and reform-driving opposition leader. But, strangely, she is not acclaimed as a potential successor to President Thein Sein, even though she is extremely popular at home.

The country's military-crafted constitution bars her from embracing the presidency because her two sons hold British citizenship.

So, in the next general elections in 2015, the 67-year-old Nobel laureate can defend her parliament seat but cannot make a bid to take over as president from Thein Sein, even if her popular National League for Democracy (NLD), which swept the latest round of parliamentary elections in April, emerges tops.

According to Burma’s 2008 Constitution, framed under the previous military junta chief Than Shwe, any Burmese national whose relatives are foreign citizens or hold foreign citizenship is not qualified to serve as president or vice-president.

Aung San Su Kyi's late husband Michael Aris is British and their two sons Alexander Aris, 39, and Kim Aris, 34, whose names were only this month removed from a long-secretive immigration blacklist, are British citizens.

Like the law preventing Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, which many suspect was specifically designed by Than Shwe to clip her political ambitions, there are other key constitutional provisions aimed at keeping the military at the levers of power and blocking the growth of democracy in the once pariah state, rights groups say.

Thus, any euphoria over Burma's nascent political, economic, and other reforms must be tempered with caution amid the prospect of swift roll back of changes by the powerful military, they say.

Dilution of power

Three years away from the next elections, few expect the military or Thein Sein's military-dominated ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to allow any dilution of the military's powers. Thein Sein has said he would not run for another term in office.

"The military has stressed that their duty is to protect and defend the constitution and I don't see the leadership moving to amend the constitution to reduce their powers anytime soon," Aung Din, the Executive Director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told RFA.

He said the military's refusal to tinker with the constitution was clearly reflected in a recent confrontation between the government and parliament over a controversial decision by the constitutional tribunal to limit the legislature’s scrutiny of government entities.

Although Thein Sein told parliament to amend the constitution to resolve the dispute—one of the biggest political crises to hit his 18-month-old nominally civilian administration—MP's from the military and the ruling USDP refused to budge, choosing instead to impeach the tribunal's nine judges.

"This shows the real color of the USDP and military," Aung Din said.

In a haste to display parliamentary strength, Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD MPs may have missed a rare opportunity to test prospects of amending the constitution by joining the military and USDP lawmakers in backing the impeachment, he said.

Under the constitution, a quarter of seats in parliament are reserved for the military. In addition, the military chief has sweeping powers when a state of emergency is declared. Three key ministerial posts—interior, defense and border affairs—must be held by serving generals.

The military's past behavior also cannot be questioned as the constitution allows immunity for all actions taken by Than Shwe's junta, which has been accused of blatant human rights abuses.

"[I]t is unfortunate that efforts to amend the 2008 constitution within and outside of the Hluttaws [lower and upper houses of parliament] are lacking," Aung Htoo, a Burmese human rights lawyer, said in an opinion piece in the Democratic Voice of Burma.

"While constitutional awareness among the majority of people in Burma needs to be effectively promoted, the interest of the international community in this field is also waning," he lamented.

Under the constitution, amendments require the approval of 75 percent of lawmakers in parliament, which is strongly dominated by the USDP and military.

Run-up to elections

Civil society activists in Burma say the run-up to 2015 is an "important time" to build support for reform and institutionalize the changes, according to a group of senior Asia specialists of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who visited the country in August.

"They argued that it is critical that the opposition works now to build confidence within the military so it will have enough trust to allow amendments to address the limits on democracy in the constitution and not panic if the opposition wins the majority in Parliament," said the group, led by director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program Ernest Bower.

Military personnel the delegation met "were supportive of the reform process, though it was impossible to gauge how far the military will go in voluntarily ceding further power to civilians," the report said.

It said however that government and military leaders alike indicated that they expected the military to reduce its role in parliament and government in general, including reducing the constitutionally mandated requirement for 25 percent of the parliament to be held by the military.

Officials frequently cite the Indonesia model where the military gradually gave up the protected seats it had in parliament following the 1998 toppling of President Suharto.

The CSIS group, which had visited Burma to explore the political, economic, and social reforms launched by Thein Sein's government and develop policy recommendations for the U.S. government, said "real change appears to be under way, but it is not irreversible."

It also cautioned about possible moves to change the Burmese electoral system following the success of Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party in the April by-elections.

The success of the NLD in the polls, in which it won 43 out of 45 contested seats, has prompted discussion about changing the country’s election format from a winner-take-all system to proportional representation, the CSIS report said.

"The ruling USDP won only one seat in the by-election even though it garnered 30 percent of the vote, and leaders are said to be concerned that the party could be wiped out by an NLD landslide in the elections in 2015 unless proportional representation is introduced."