U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday backed Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for constitutional change in the country in his most definitive statement on the issue, including a clause that bars her from running for president based on the foreign nationality of her children.
“The constitutional amendment process needs to reflect inclusion rather than exclusion,” Obama said at a press conference following a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside residence in the commercial hub Yangon, where she spent 15 years under house arrest before being released in 2010.
“There are certain provisions in the Burmese constitution that objectively don’t make much sense.”
Although Obama did not refer to Aung San Suu Kyi by name, it is widely known that article 59(F) of the charter prohibits the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) from running for president in next year’s general elections because her two sons are British citizens.
“I don’t understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are,” Obama said, adding that that the final decision to amend the 2008 constitution rested with the people of Myanmar. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke more bluntly about why her party has called for a change to the article.
“We object to that clause not because it debars me from the presidency as such, but because it is against the principles of democracy and also unconstitutional,” she said.
“The constitution says all citizens should be treated as equals. This is discrimination on the grounds of my children, my children’s spouses, et cetera. This is not acceptable. Our people are firmly behind us in that decision to change the clause.”
The NLD and Myanmar’s 88 Generation students group collected nearly 5 million signatures during a campaign from May 27 to July 19 to press the ruling party to remove the military's veto over changes to the constitution, including the clause that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.
Otherwise, the popular pro-democracy advocate, who won a seat in parliament in a 2012 by-election, appears to have no chance of becoming a presidential candidate when national elections are held next year.
“The majority of our people understand that this constitution cannot stand as is if we want to make the full transition to democracy,” she said.
“You cannot penalize anyone for what their children do.”
Obama said besides constitutional changes that would let Myanmar move more fully toward a civilian government and reduce tension among ethnic groups, he and Aung San Suu Kyi also discussed the rule of law and need for free, fair, and inclusive elections.
He specifically referred to the stateless Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that lives in deplorable conditions in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s government wants Rohingyas to satisfy a six-decade residency qualification before granting them second-class citizenship. Those who cannot satisfy the requirement will be deported.
Obama said the constitutional amendment issue and discrimination against religious groups in the country were two of the five measures he told President Thein Sein, with whom he met on Thursday evening, the U.S. would use to gauge Myanmar’s success with its transition to democracy.
“I indicated [to Thein Sein] that we are paying attention to how religious minorities are treated in this country,” Obama said.
He said he recognized the complexities of the persecution against Rohingyas in Rakhine state, but firmly believed that “the legitimacy of any government has to be based on rule of law and a recognition that all people are equal under the law.”
“Discrimination against the Rohingya or any other religious minority, I think, does not express the kind of country that Burma over the long-term wants to be,” Obama said.
The three other measures of a successful transition to democracy hinge upon the need for free elections to be held without delay next year, progress with the national peace process, and the guarantee of basic freedoms, such freedom of the press, Obama said.
Obama also met separately on Friday with civil society group leaders and young people from the 10 members states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a town-hall forum, his last stop on his second tour of Myanmar.
The U.S. president previously was in the capital Naypyidaw to attend the ASEAN-U.S. and East Asia summits.
Reported by Myo Zwa Ko and Zin Mar Win. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.