Myanmar’s Upper House Passes Bill to Make Aung San Suu Kyi State Counselor

2016-04-01
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Aung San Suu Kyi (2nd L) talks with military assigned ministers during the presidential power handover ceremony in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2015.
Aung San Suu Kyi (2nd L) talks with military assigned ministers during the presidential power handover ceremony in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2015.
NurPhoto

Myanmar’s upper house of parliament on Friday passed a bill to create a special advisory role for Aung San Suu Kyi in the new democratically elected government run by her party, despite objections by military deputies who called the motion unconstitutional.

The position would give Aung San Suu Kyi, who has vowed to rule Myanmar from a position above her proxy president Htin Kyaw, considerable influence over the president and parliament and authority to conduct meetings.

The motion passed 137-70 in a secret ballot vote with two deputies abstaining, said upper house speaker Mahn Win Khaing Than. The lower house still needs to pass the bill, which like the upper house is dominated by National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers.

Military lawmaker Brigadier-General Khin Maung Aye opposed the bill, arguing that it went against the constitution and would create conflicts of interest for Aung San Suu Kyi, who holds other positions in the new government, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.

Military deputies Colonel Myint Swe and Colonel Hla Win Aung objected to the bill because they said it would put the president on the same level as the state counselor and could disrupt the balance of power in the government, Agence France-Presse reported.

NLD lawmaker Zaw Min, who chairs the upper house bill committee, dismissed objections that the bill is unconstitutional and said the matter was one for the Constitutional Tribunal to handle.

Juggling her roles

It remains unclear, however, how 70-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, who is head of the foreign affairs, education, electric power and energy, and President’s Office ministries, will juggle all her roles, along with her position as NLD chairwoman and the state counselor post, if the bill is approved.

The NLD issued a statement on Friday citing provisions in the constitution that even though the president, vice presidents and cabinet ministers are prohibited from campaigning for the party, they need not relinquish their positions in the NLD. This would effectively let Aung San Suu Kyi retain her position as NLD chairwoman.

“With regard to Aung San Suu Kyi, the president and the ministers, once they assume their positions they should not be involved in party activities,” NLD Central Information Committee member Monywa Aung Shin told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“This is the kind of question that was asked by the NLD during the first session of Pyithu Hluttaw [lower house of parliament], and it was answered in the same way—no mention was made of resignation or retirement.”

Last week, jurist Than Maung told RFA that if Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed to one or more ministerial posts, she would have to forfeit her status as NLD chairwoman, according to the constitution.

He also pointed out that the constitution forbids political party members who become government ministers from holding positions of responsibility in their party during their ministerial term.

Contentious relationship

Aung San Suu Kyi has had a contentious relationship with the military-backed opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) as well as the powerful military itself, which dominated Myanmar for more than a half-century and kept her under house arrest for 15 years over a 21-year period.

When the military junta that formerly ruled the country drafted the constitution in 2008, it inserted a provision preventing anyone with foreign-born relatives from becoming president. This included Aung San Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals, as was her late husband.

Lawmakers under the previous USDP government rejected attempts last year by Aung San Suu Kyi to change the provision and to reduce the influence of the military, which controls a quarter of the seats in parliament by appointment and wields veto power over proposed constitutional changes.

But after the NLD uprooted the USDP by winning a landslide victory in general elections last November, she vowed to lead the nation from a position above the president.

She then picked as her proxy her close aide Htin Kyaw, who was sworn in Wednesday as Myanmar’s first civilian president in more than a half-century.

In a speech to lawmakers on Wednesday, Htin Kyaw said he would work for a democratic constitution based on a federal union in keeping with the ambition of the NLD—an indication that the party-led government still intends to change the charter.

Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nyein Shwe. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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