Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Friday that her push to amend a constitutional provision barring her from running for president in elections next year was part of a bid to ensure equal rights for all citizens.
The Nobel laureate said that the government should amend Article 59 (F)—which bans citizens whose spouse or children are foreign nationals from holding the nation’s top office—so that no one is excluded from office according to their individual abilities.
“In order to be a developed nation, everyone in the country should [be able to] take on a suitable duty or position in accordance with their expertise and talent,” the head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) told tens of thousands of supporters in Kalaymyo, in Sagaing division.
“Otherwise the [progress of] the country will be jeopardized.”
Aung San Suu Kyi told the crowd of largely ethnic Chin supporters that her intention in changing the provision was “simply to have equal rights among all citizens” rather than for the purpose of ensuring that she could run for president, adding that she “should have the same rights as other … citizens.”
The Tatmadaw, or military, should also share the same rights as Myanmar’s citizens because it was created by the people, she said.
“The Tatmadaw shouldn’t have more or less rights than other citizens,” Aung San Suu Kyi told the crowd.
“If the constitution was created to provide a different set of rights for the Tatmadaw than for the people, it was written with the intention of preventing national reconciliation in Burma (Myanmar).”
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke as she wrapped up a four-day visit to three towns in Chin state and neighboring Sagaing division to promote changes to the 2008 junta-drafted constitution which, in addition to the clause barring her from the presidency, contains several provisions widely seen as undemocratic.
The charter reserves a quarter of seats in parliament for the military and requires a three-quarters majority for a national referendum on proposed amendments.
Ethnic-based political parties in Myanmar and armed rebel groups negotiating cease-fire agreements with the government have also called for amendments that allow ethnic groups and states greater autonomy.
Myanmar’s 109-member parliamentary review committee, formed in June, is currently accepting proposals for amending the constitution from the public and will report on them this month, a month later than originally scheduled after it extended the deadline.
Myanmar’s ruling officials have mostly expressed support for constitutional amendments, but with elections coming up in 2015, some observers say the process so far has been slow.
Aung San Suu Kyi remained positive Friday, saying that the possibility of amending the provision preventing her from running for president had not been entirely ruled out.
“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.
Drumming up support
According to the online Irrawaddy journal, the overwhelming majority of the thousands of people in the crowds at each stop during Aung San Suu Kyi’s tour supported the opposition leader’s proposals for constitutional reform, based on a show of hands.
It quoted Pu Lian Kyone Nuon, among the crowd from Sann township in Chin state, as saying that he was now aware of the need to amend the charter based on Aung San Suu Kyi’s explanation during her first visit to the region in a decade.
“We now understand that amending the constitution first is important to develop the region. I believe development and the other changes will come later, after amending the constitution,” he said.
“We have no doubts about her; if she says so, she will do it for sure. We wish her to be our future president. But I believe she will do everything she can for changes in the region and the country, whether she is president or not in 2015,” he added.
The Irrawaddy also reported that NLD officials had labeled their leader’s trip a success, quoting Kyi Toe, a member of the party’s central information committee who accompanied her, as saying that “all of the people in the region [were] showing their support.”
“More than 90 percent of the public has raised their hands and agreed to amend the constitution. We will submit the results [in favor of amending the constitution] that we got from the public to parliament,” he said.
Suu Kyi left for the capital Naypyidaw on Friday. She will travel to Karen state on Jan. 18 and southern Shan state on Jan. 25, where she will continue her push for constitutional reform.
US weighs in
Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks came as U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell on Friday expressed Washington’s concerns over the constitutional ban on the opposition leader from contesting the presidency.
In a statement given to local media, Mitchell said that Myanmar was facing 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.
He called the provision in the charter “a relic from the past” and deemed it irrelevant “in a new, open democracy Burma that seeks to integrate itself to the world.”
Mitchell praised parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, leader of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), for speaking out in favor of amending the clause, calling his position “honorable” and “very democratic.”
“Again as an observer, I just wonder why others don’t view it that way,” he said.
The U.S. ambassador said that if Myanmar hopes to achieve a democratic state, the upcoming election should be “free and fair, one that is inclusive, open and ensures that everyone has a choice.”
“In particular, we believe it important that the result truly reflects the will of the people; that they are able to freely choose who they want to lead them during the critical next phase of transition, to ensure stability of the country as this difficult transition proceeds.”
Reported by Myo Thant Khine, Kyaw Zaw Win and Myo Zaw Ko for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.