NAYPYITAW— Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said boycotting an upcoming historic election was an “option” if a military-drafted constitution that bars her from becoming president remains unchanged.
In an interview on Friday, the Nobel laureate told Reuters that her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party was “ready to govern” but that President Thein Sein was insincere about reform and might try to postpone the election.
She also said U.S. praise for Burma’s semi-civilian government, which took power in 2011 after nearly 50 years of brutal military rule, had made it “complacent” about reform.
While scathing about what she called Thein Sein’s “hardline regime”, Suu Kyi emphasised the need to reconcile with the military which detained her for 15 years until her release from house arrest in 2010.
“We don’t think that boycotting the election is the best choice,” said Suu Kyi, when asked whether her party would run with the constitution unchanged. “But we’re not ruling it out altogether. We are leaving our options open.”
However, she stressed the importance of the November general election, describing it as “the real test of whether we are on the route to democracy or not.”
The NLD won Burma’s last real election in 1990 by a landslide, but the military nullified the result.
The party boycotted the 2010 poll, widely regarded as rigged, which installed Thein Sein, a former general and junta stalwart.
His government launched a series of political and economic reforms. Many people now feel the reform process has stalled, and the military – its immense power largely unchecked – again casts a shadow over the voting.
Suu Kyi said Thein Sein was “sincere” about reform during their first meeting in 2011. But now, he was not.
“Because if he had been sincere about reform, then we would be much further ahead than we are,” she said, speaking in a meeting room in Burma’s sprawling parliamentary complex in the capital Naypyitaw.
She expressed concern that Thein Sein might use peace talks with ethnic rebels as a pretext to delay the election.
For Suu Kyi, who turns 70 in June, this is a pivotal year.
She and 42 other NLD members entered parliament after a 2012 by-election. Since then, say critics, Suu Kyi has lent her hard-won democratic credentials to a questionable government that has given little in return.
But many more in this large, poor and ethnically diverse nation still see Suu Kyi as Burma’s best hope. Reforms have raised expectations among its 53 million population but left most people’s lives unimproved.
The constitution, drafted by the former junta, reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military delegates, which effectively allows them to veto any constitutional change.
It also bars presidential candidates with a foreign spouse or child. Suu Kyi’s late husband and two sons are British.
She said the presidency was still within her reach. “Why not?” she said. “Constitutions are not permanent.”
But changing it, she admitted, depended upon a government she repeatedly described in the interview as a “regime” of hardliners.
“They are not interested in negotiations or in amending the constitution or taking seriously the will of the people…you could hardly say they are moderates.”
Suu Kyi said she questioned U.S. praise of Burmese government in the hopes of encouraging further reforms.
“I would ask whether it actually encourages them to do more or it simply makes them more complacent,” she said.
“The United States and the West in general are too optimistic and a bit of healthy scepticism would help everybody a great deal.”
A U.S. official told Reuters in November, ahead of President Barack Obama’s second visit to the country, that Washington had decided not to press for changes to Burma’s constitution in a bid to maintain influence with its government.
But Suu Kyi said she did not feel abandoned by the United States and had “good friends” there.
One “absolute necessity” was mending relations with the military. “We can’t have a country that is split between the military and the rest of the people,” she said.
In 2012, Suu Kyi upset many supporters by saying she had a “soft spot” for the military. It was founded by her father Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, whose portrait hung on the wall behind her.
Now, she rejects criticism that she had been outmanoeuvred by Burma’s generals.
“We’ve always known that they would not give up their privileges easily,” she said. “There’s a time when we have to stand up for our principles and there’s a time when one of the principles should be national reconciliation rather than digging up the past.”
Suu Kyi also denied claims she had failed to speak up for the Rohingya Muslims, a mostly stateless people living in wretched conditions in western Burma after deadly clashes with majority Buddhists in 2012.
“When I talked about rule of law and the fact that we condemned all forms of violence, nobody was interested,” she said. “This wasn’t news.”