Suu Kyi can shape her country’s political future

Published on February 11, 2016

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Bangkok Post – February 11, 2016

The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide electoral victory in Myanmar last year. Now, party members and supporters around the world would like to see NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi become the country’s next president, something that she has unequivocally expressed her desire for.

NLD officials have offered senior government posts to the military as part of a deal in which the military would allow Ms Suu Kyi to be president, a process which in fact had started before the Nov 8 general election.

The constitution, however, states that the president “shall he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power, not be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country. They shall not be persons entitled to enjoy the rights and privileges of a subject of a foreign government or citizen of a foreign country”.

The clause covers both Ms Suu Kyi’s sons, who are British citizens. She had said in the past that this clause was specifically intended to prevent her from holding the chief executive office. Despite the constitutional obstacle, Ms Suu Kyi openly said before the election: “If we win, and the NLD forms a government, I will be above the president … The constitution says nothing about somebody being above the president.”

In response, Zaw Htay, a senior official at President Thein Sein’s office, said the NLD leader’s comments were “against the constitutional provision”. The military may find it difficult to tolerate the country’s president becoming a puppet of Ms Suu Kyi.

With a majority in both houses of parliament, the NLD now has greater leverage, particularly in the executive and legislative branches of the government. However, the NLD would not have an easy ride in parliament, especially when it comes to issues of defence and national security. It’s certain that the 25% military bloc, supported by like- minded USDP members, would form the main opposition.

Does this mean there is no way out for Ms Suu Kyi to become the country’s president? Though there are constitutional challenges, it is not absolutely impossible. Many pro-democracy forces, including the country’s ethnic minority groups, would not like the idea but Ms Suu Kyi can do two things to increase her chances.

The first step is that she would need to convince not only the military leaders but her own party members as well as the country’s ethnic minority groups, including armed organisations, to forgive and forget the past. Ms Suu Kyi is halfway in this venture. She met the three most powerful leaders in the country, namely Shwe Mann, Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing, who assured a peaceful power transition to the NLD.

The most significant, and perhaps the most crucial one of all, was the meeting between Ms Suu Kyi and the former military junta supreme leader Than Shwe. She needs the support of Than Shwe for a peaceful power transition and the possibility of her presidency.

By supporting Ms Suu Kyi, Than Shwe would expect an assurance that the NLD government will not pursue any punitive actions against the present and former military generals for the crimes they committed during the years of military rule and thereafter.

The concern for the safety and security of former military generals was evident when the home ministry submitted a “Former Presidents’ Security Bill” in Pyithu Hluttaw on Dec 21 that would provide immunity from prosecution for actions taken by the president while in office.

Such immunity for former military officials was also included when the SPDC government handpicked delegates drafted the 2008 constitution. While protection given to former presidents is a common practice in democratic countries, there are people who are critical about giving blanket immunity since Thein Sein himself is a former military general.

On Dec 5, Ms Suu Kyi urged her fellow NLD lawmakers to reconcile with the military even though a number of the elected lawmakers, including NLD representatives, still want to hold former military generals accountable for their actions.

Ms Suu Kyi is prepared to work together with the people who put her under house arrest for years, which she believes is necessary for her own political future as well as for peace and stability of the country. After her meeting with Than Shwe, Ms Suu Kyi said, “We should think of working for the emergence of a brighter future based on the present situation, instead of thinking why we didn’t do it in the past.”

The second step Ms Suu Kyi should consider is to reach out to the country’s ethnic minorities. Though the vast majority of people in Myanmar suffered under military rule, the country’s ethnic minorities were the worst affected. Under the repressive regime, thousands of people lost their lives, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and many more thousands were maimed or permanently disabled.

It would be very hard for the victims to forgive and forget the brutality of the then military regime, but Ms Suu Kyi may convince them in the hopes of bringing peace and or for the sake of national reconciliation. In a positive development to the peace process, Ms Suu Kyi told the Thein Sein government-backed Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC), which had led the peace negotiations since 2011, to meet with the ethnic armed groups that did not sign the “nationwide” ceasefire agreement on Oct 15, 2015. Out of more than 20 ethnic armed organisations in the country, only eight groups signed the peace deal in Nay Pyi Taw. Political dialogue, involving more than 700 stakeholders, began on Jan 12, with the non-signatory groups invited to attend as observers. With the NLD coming to power, the future prospects of the peace process and the role of the MPC are largely in the hands of the new government.

While efforts for a constitutional amendment or its replacement should likely continue, one other option Ms Suu Kyi could explore is assuming a role similar to Sonia Gandhi of the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government. Though the situation of Ms Suu Kyi and Ms Gandhi is different in some aspects, notably their country of origin, their foreign connection is similar. Ms Gandhi is Italian by birth, and married an Indian, whereas Ms Suu Kyi was born in Myanmar but married a Briton, Michael Aris. In the case of Ms Gandhi, she refused to become the prime minister of India but exercised enormous power and influence as president of the Indian National Congress and chairperson of the UPA. If it materialises, such a power arrangement could be a way of implementing what Ms Suu Kyi herself said would allow her to rule “above the president”.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a political scientist and Assistant Professor at the School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including the forthcoming ‘Myanmar: A Political History’ by Oxford University Press.

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