Wise of Suu Kyi not to force presidency issue

Published on March 10, 2016

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Straits Times – March 10, 2016

Myanmar’s Parliament nominates today the candidates who are to be the next president and vice-president. However, National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi will not be taking the top office, despite her party’s sweeping victory in the elections last November.

She is prevented by a clause in Myanmar’s Constitution. Article 59(F) states that the president, one of his or her parents, spouse or children should “not owe allegiance to a foreign power, not be a subject of a foreign power or a citizen of a foreign country”. Ms Suu Kyi’s two sons and her deceased husband are British citizens.

While Ms Suu Kyi, 70, has vowed to rule “above” whoever the next president is, she had been in negotiations for several months with the powerful military in the hope of unblocking her path to the presidency.

However, the NLD has decided not to pursue the much-hyped matter of suspending or amending the Constitution that would allow its leader to become the country’s president. The party has announced that it will not push for a constitutional amendment at least for another two years.

The elections were brought forward a week from the original date of March 17 by the NLD leadership after the third round of meetings between Ms Suu Kyi and the military commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, on Feb 17.

During the course of closed-door meetings, the military chief had said that amending the Constitution would be unconstitutional. Moreover, the military chief and his deputy extended their tenure for another five more years against existing regulations which require the army chief to retire at the age of 60, which Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reaches this year.

Given the state of Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, I believe that insistence on a constitutional amendment at this juncture, amid opposition from the military, could have hurt the country’s political transition.

The military, at the moment, is unwilling to hand over absolute power to a civilian government primarily for two reasons – the lingering fear that it could be prosecuted for the crimes it had committed during military rule and because of the inconclusive peace process with the country’s ethnic armed groups.

The military still considers itself the guardian and protector of the state.

Recent developments have suggested that the present military leadership is intent on sustaining its influence on the country’s politics at least for the next five years of the NLD government.

Reportedly one major demand of the military from the NLD during negotiations was the posts of chief ministers for Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states, as well as Yangon region.

In the 2015 general election, a vast majority of ethnic minorities had shown their trust in Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD above their own ethnic leaders and political parties, as evidenced by the election results.

Had the NLD given away these chief ministers’ posts in lieu of military appeasement or in anticipation of amending Article 59(F), it would have been tantamount to betrayal in the eyes of the ethnic minorities who voted for NLD candidates, especially people of Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states.

Had the negotiations been successful, the civilian government at the centre would have had very little influence on major decisions pertaining to these areas. The military would have secured more power and territories, in addition to what the Constitution has already guaranteed.

Moreover, had the NLD insisted on a constitutional amendment, it could have potentially disrupted a peaceful power transition, giving the military a good justification to exert undue influence in one way or another.

Now that the NLD has given up its quest for constitutional amendment, Ms Suu Kyi has other options that would allow her to continue negotiating with the military leadership for a gradual change.

Given the NLD’s majority in both Houses of Parliament, Ms Suu Kyi has the freedom to choose between being a Cabinet minister and party president. For example, if she were to become the foreign minister, she would have to surrender the party presidency but joins the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC).

Among others, the NDSC, which is the highest decision-making body, has the authority to declare a national emergency for the military to take charge of all branches of the government – executive, judiciary and legislative.

As foreign minister, she would also be leading the most important ministry under the civilian government. And as the top diplomat of the country, her position would allow her to engage in day-to-day diplomatic activities.

However, it would be awkward for a foreign minister to rule from above the president, which Ms Suu Kyi has unequivocally said she would do.

On the other hand, if she were to remain party president, she would indirectly be able to oversee the government similar to what Mrs Sonia Gandhi did during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government in neighbouring India.

Mrs Gandhi refused to become the prime minister but exercised enormous power and influence as president of the Congress party and chairman of UPA.

As Ms Suu Kyi will not try to amend the Constitution at least for the next two years, this could give her better political leverage to execute her “above president” role more efficiently and effectively.

The decision is temporary and the party has not completely abandoned the idea of making its leader Myanmar’s president.

Whatever role she may choose to play, Ms Suu Kyi’s move in not pursuing a confrontational stance on constitutional amendment is good for the country as well as the NLD, at least for the near future.

The writer is assistant professor at, and director of, the Centre for South-east Asian Studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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