Obama’s visit to Myanmar and the political future of Aung San Suu Kyi

Published on November 13, 2014

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The China Post – November 13, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Myanmar for a three-day visit on Nov. 12. This is Obama’s second trip to Myanmar in two years. His visit in November 2012 was the first ever by a sitting U.S. president.

During his stay in the country, Obama will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asia summit, and also meet Myanmar President Thein Sein and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Though the priority of Obama’s trip is to attend the regional summit, other pressing issues of bilateral ties between the United States and Myanmar are expected to be discussed.

Obama’s visit is particularly significant for two reasons. First, the meeting will bring together world leaders, including presidents of the United States, Russia and China, which are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Second, on Nov. 5, the Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that her country’s democratic reform process is stalling and that the American government is being over optimistic.

As part of preparations for the bilateral meetings, President Obama on Oct. 30 had separate telephone conversations with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. Obama expressed the United States’ firm commitment to helping the people of Myanmar achieve a more free, open and prosperous nation.

Obama also stressed the need to address communal tensions, forge a nationwide cease-fire pact, and hold a credible general election, which is tentatively scheduled for late October or early November next year.

In response to Obama’s phone calls, leaders of Myanmar’s political parties and the army held an unprecedented meeting on Oct. 30. The meeting was, among others, attended by President Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and commander-in-chief of the armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The leaders reportedly discussed their commitment to political reforms, peace talks with ethnic armed groups and the possibility of amending the 2008 constitution through a legislative process, which the parliament is expected to discuss. However, during a press briefing on Nov. 5, Suu Kyi said the meeting achieved little.

On the eve of Obama’s trip, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, “We will underscore the United States’ commitment to the protection of human rights, tolerance and pluralism, as well as sustaining and deepening the democratic transition.”

Given the significance of the 2015 general election for Myanmar’s future political landscape, issues surrounding the amendment of the 2008 constitution will be central to the bilateral talks.

Article 436 requires that the constitution be amended by a vote of more than seventy-five percent of all representatives of the Union parliament. Therefore, unelected soldiers, who make up a quarter of the legislature, have the last say on changes to the charter.

The 31-member constitution amendment committee, which like parliament was dominated by the military and members of the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, decided not to recommend a change to the controversial provision that bars Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Despite the democratic transition, the military still dominates key decision-making — whether in negotiating peace with ethnic armed groups or changing the constitution.

Article 59(f) states that “the president shall himself, one of the parents, the spouses, 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 and citizen of a foreign country.”

The role of United States government is limited for constitutional amendment, but it will be a boost for the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other smaller parties if Obama puts pressure on the Myanmar government.

While efforts for constitutional amendment should be continued, the NLD should also explore the possibility of making Suu Kyi assume a leadership role similar to Sonia Gandhi of the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government.

Though the condition of Suu Kyi and Gandhi is different, particularly their country of origin, the critics’ argument over their foreign connection is similar, but not identical. Gandhi is an Italian by birth who married an Indian, whereas Suu Kyi is Burmese by birth and married a British husband, Michael Aris.

In the case of Gandhi, she refused to become the Prime Minister of India but exercised enormous power as president of the Indian National Congress and as chairperson of the UPA. Under similar circumstances, what about Aung San Suu Kyi assuming a role similar to Sonia Gandhi?

I am fully aware that predicting such a scenario or proposing such a political arrangement will yield mixed reactions — both from supporting and opposing groups. Nevertheless, there needs to be a point where political rivals strike a balance and reach compromise for the sake of the entire country.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a political scientist and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum whose works have been widely published in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. He is the author of a book entitled “Democracy Movement in Myanmar: Problems and Challenges.”

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