RANGOON — With elections looming next year, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is stepping up efforts to change a constitution that bars her from the presidency and gives substantial political power to unelected military members of Parliament.
Suu Kyi became an international icon after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her pro-democracy efforts and spent most of the next two decades under house arrest where she continued to resist Burma’s military rulers.
She remains wildly popular at home, but is nonetheless unable to fulfil her wish to become president due to a constitutional clause written to exclude her from office. Now, she says, her priority is to change another clause that grants the military de-facto power over constitutional amendments.
The constitution drafted under a former military regime sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and more than half of the rest are held by its allies in the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), many of them former officers.
Section 436 requires 75 percent support for most amendments to the constitution, which would currently need the support of most USDP and military MPs, an unlikely achievement for any proposal aiming at undercutting the military’s role in politics.
“If we don’t change 436, it means that the military has virtual veto power over what can or cannot be changed within the constitution,” Suu Kyi told Reuters on Sunday.
Suu Kyi has received a boost from a surprising source: a USDP-dominated parliamentary committee examining constitutional amendments.
The panel voted to change the 75 percent majority required to a two-thirds majority, one member said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity as the committee’s affairs are meant to be kept secret.
That could make it easier for the NLD to push through further amendments, including eliminating the clause that prevents anyone with a child or spouse with foreign citizenship from being president.
Most analysts believe this clause, 59 (f), was written into the military-drafted 2008 Constitution specifically to sideline Suu Kyi. Her late husband was British, as are her two sons.
By focusing on the majority required for constitutional change, Suu Kyi was able to appeal to a broader array of people, according to Andrew McLeod, who leads the Burma program at Oxford University’s Faculty of Law.
“She was always likely to be branded as debating in self-interest if she focused solely on 59 (f),” he said.
Some sense a mood for change in the military.
“Many of the constitutional questions are about civilian control of the military,” said Tom Malinowsky, US assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, who met military representatives in Burma last week.
“My impression is that they are wrestling with that very question,” he told a small group of journalists on Saturday. “We got questions about it from the younger officers … [who] asked us to talk about how quickly this change should take place.”
After almost half a century in power, the military stepped aside in 2011 following elections in November 2010. The quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein, himself a former junta member, surprised the world by ushering in reforms such as the release of political prisoners.
In response, the United States suspended most sanctions and promised to ease them further if there were more reforms, including the withdrawal of the military from politics.
Suu Kyi’s allies in the fight for constitutional reform include members of the ’88 Generation, made up of veterans of the 1988 student protests against the military regime that thrust Suu Kyi into the political spotlight.
They are working alongside her National League for Democracy (NLD) party on a petition to change the constitution, which the NLD says has already garnered 2.5 million signatures.
The military put Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989 after suppressing the pro-democracy protests. The NLD swept a 1990 election for members of a body to draft a new constitution, but the junta ignored the result and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 of the next 20 years.
She was freed in November 2010, a week after the general election—boycotted by the NLD and widely regarded as rigged—that swept the USDP to power.
The parliamentary committee looking at the constitution is due to submit its proposals in February 2015.
Even if it recommends amending clause 436, that change itself would have to be supported by 75 percent of parliament. It would then have to be put to a nationwide referendum and win at least 50 percent approval.
It will be a massive challenge to Suu Kyi and her allies to push that through before a general election scheduled for late 2015. And the task gets even harder if they want a further change dropping the clause that stops her becoming president.
Suu Kyi says she’s not daunted by the tight time frame.
“I don’t think in terms of optimism,” Suu Kyi told Reuters. “I always think in terms of how hard we can work to achieve what we’re trying to achieve, and I think we are capable of a lot of hard work.”
Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun.