RANGOON — A military representative on Wednesday attempted to pour cold water on the aspirations of those who want to see Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi one day become president, as lawmakers convened for a second day of deliberations on proposed constitutional amendments.
Brig-Gen Tin Soe, a parliamentarian appointed by the military, told lawmakers that changing Article 59(f), which bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her two sons are British, could expose Burma to foreign influence and risked undermining the country’s sovereignty.
The military’s position was about “ensuring we can decide the future of our country and people,” he said.
“That mixed blood citizens [might be allowed to] manage the affairs and administration of the country would have bad impacts on the independence and sovereignty of the country,” he added.
Suu Kyi is a full Burmese citizen, but the chairwoman of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party is ineligible for the presidency because of her offspring.
“We should make decisions with far-sightedness for any issue of the country, which holds an important geographical position,” Tin Soe continued. “I would like to urge the Union Parliament to keep Article 59[f] unchanged with impartiality and without making compromise.”
He said that if Burma’s leaders or their family members owed allegiance to a foreign power, Burma would indirectly come under the influence of that country. Only those with no blood or marital relations to foreigners were deserving of the people’s confidence, the brigadier-general argued.
Article 59(f) of Burma’s military-drafted Constitution states: “The president or vice-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.”
The amendment bill submitted to Parliament this week does seek to amend the provision, but the proposal only removes the wording that bars presidential eligibility to anyone whose child has married a foreigner, meaning Suu Kyi would remain ineligible even if the bill is passed in its current form.
An NLD representative pushed back against Tin Soe’s assertions on Wednesday, saying inaction on constitutional reform would compromise the credibility of an election later this year.
“Without making proper amendments to Articles 436 and 59[f], the 2015 general election will in no way be free and fair, because [they] gained the upper hand before contesting and bar the democracy icon from becoming president. No need to even ask if it is free and fair,” NLD lawmaker Naing Ngan Lin told Parliament.
Article 436, which lawmakers began debating on Tuesday, is the key provision for changing Burma’s controversial 2008 Constitution. It states that the approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers is required for amending most parts of the charter, with the amendment bill proposing that the threshold be lowered to 70 percent of votes.
Brig-Gen Tint San Naing, another military MP, spoke out against changing Article 436 on Tuesday, saying it should be left untouched for the sake of peace and stability in Burma and in the national interest at a time when the country is undergoing a nascent democratic transition.
“If the Constitution is allowed to be amended easily, it will be amended time and again, which would undermine the very essence of a Constitution,” he said. “So I find that the 2008 Constitution, which is drafted with good intentions and does not harm the people’s interests, should not be amended.”
Militarily appointed lawmakers constitute a guaranteed 25 percent of seats in Parliament. The Constitution’s Article 436 means a “yes” vote from at least one military representative is required to change the charter.
Lawmakers from the NLD, ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and smaller ethnic parties all spoke on Tuesday in favor of lowering the vote threshold, which grants the military an effective veto over constitutional change.
A total of 18 lawmakers—17 elected parliamentarians and one military representative—took part in the second day of deliberations on charter amendments. The debate continues Thursday, when a vote on the proposed amendment bill is expected.
Any bill that clears the Article 436 hurdle and passes Parliament by a vote of more than 75 percent of lawmakers would then be subject to a national referendum, where the approval of more than 50 percent of voters nationwide is required in order for the changes to be enacted.
Elected members of the legislature appeared united in support of at least the basic need to change the Constitution on the opening day of the discussion, with even USDP members, many of whom are former generals, calling for a reduced role for the military by amending Article 436.
“It is time to change [the Constitution] now,” NLD lawmaker Dr. Zaw Myint Maung said on Tuesday. “We, all the elected members to Parliament, submit that 2008 Constitution poses barriers to democratic transition.”