RANGOON — Facing mounting pressure for greater political reform, Burmese President Thein Sein says he supports efforts to change the Constitution and remove restrictions that currently prevent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.
Speaking Thursday in a monthly radio address, Thein Sein said “a healthy Constitution must be amended from time to time to address the national, economic and social needs of our society.”
“I would not want restrictions imposed on the right of any citizen to become the leader of the country,” he said. “At the same time, we will need to have all necessary measures in place in order to defend our national interests and sovereignty.”
The 2008 Constitution was written by the former military regime and passed after a referendum that was widely criticized as rigged. It includes a provision that makes Suu Kyi ineligible for the presidency because her late husband was British and her two sons continue to hold foreign citizenship.
Thein Sein said he believed the Constitution would need to be changed for national reconciliation, as he seeks to secure a nationwide ceasefire with over 10 ethnic armed groups after decades of civil war.
“Political dialogue, which is essential for national reconciliation and the foundation of the national peace process, may require amending, or revision, of the Constitution,” he said.
Ethnic groups are calling either for broad changes or a complete rewriting of the Constitution to create a federalist system that would give ethnic minority states greater power over their own affairs.
Thein Sein added a note of caution about how far political reform might go.
“Since the beginning of my administration, I have not done anything in an unaccountable manner. I have tried to promote harmony. I have tried to do everything I can to meet the needs and wishes of the people,” he said.
“However, I would like to emphasize that if the political demands made by the public are larger than what the current political system can accommodate, we can all end up in political deadlock. If this happens, we could lose all the political freedom we have achieved so far. I would therefore like to urge all of you to handle such situation with care and wisdom.”
The president’s speech drew mixed reactions from opposition leaders, who said it was unclear whether talk of amendments would translate to action.
“It depends how he will implement his words,” Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
NLD member Yan Myo Thein also criticized the radio address as ambiguous, saying, “He did not give a clear message. He was very cautious in his speech.”
On Monday, Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said in a surprise announcement that it had put forth proposals for amendments to the 2008 Constitution, including a change that would make Suu Kyi eligible for the presidency if her two sons became Burmese citizens.
Suu Kyi said she would allow her sons, both adults, to make their own decision. It is not possible to hold dual citizenship in Burma, meaning that they would need to give up their British citizenship.
“Since they turned 21 years old I have not had the right to decide for them,” she told Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service. “It would not be up to the standards of democracy if there was a law to decide for them.”
The USDP has voted in favor of changing 52 articles in the Constitution and eliminating 21 articles. The NLD is pushing to change 168 articles.
Members of the public have been asked to submit comments about constitutional reform to lawmakers, with about 320,000 letters of suggestion submitted thus far, according to the parliamentary committee working on constitutional reform.
Thein Sein said the military has also submitted proposals to the parliamentary committee, but he did not elaborate as to the nature of those proposals.
The Constitution currently reserves 25 percent of seats in Parliament for military representatives.
Burma is gearing up for elections in 2015, and Suu Kyi has expressed ambitions to become president.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate recently suggested that her party might boycott the polls if there was no constitutional reform, but the NLD later said it would contest the elections no matter what.
In 2012 by-elections which brought Suu Kyi to Parliament, the NLD won 43 of 44 seats it contested.