Bill Crowning Suu Kyi ‘State Counselor’ Passes Upper House

By Tin Htet Paing 1 April 2016

RANGOON— Burma’s Upper House of Parliament on Friday approved legislation that would create a powerful remit for National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, whose responsibilities in the new government already include four ministerial portfolios.

During Friday’s legislative session, the NLD-dominated upper chamber passed the “State Counselor” bill, proposed by President Htin Kyaw and submitted by the Upper House Bill Committee on Thursday, by a vote of 137-70. The secret balloting saw two lawmakers abstain.

The bill, which includes five chapters and eight articles, marked the first legislative initiative of the Upper House since Htin Kyaw was sworn in, and was tabled by seven lawmakers during the session. The text of the legislation explicitly designates NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi as state counselor, and has been widely interpreted as a move by the party leader to circumvent a Constitution that bars her from the presidency.

Military lawmaker Brig-Gen Khin Maung Aye spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it was not in accordance with the 2008 Constitution and would create conflicts of interest for Suu Kyi, given the extensive role she has carved out for herself in the new cabinet.

“According to Article 232[h] of the 2008 Constitution, the Union ministers shall be responsible to the President,” he read. “So it clashes with clause 5[b] of the draft bill, which states that the state counselor shall be responsible to the Union Parliament,” he continued.

He also said the bill would create a situation that allowed Suu Kyi to straddle the legislative-executive divide, taking power in both branches of government.

Lawmaker Myint Naing from the Arakan National Party suggested that legislation should not be drafted to include a specific name.

He recommended amending the wording to designate the “chairperson of the election-winning party” for the post, a change to Article 4.

A lawmaker from the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) argued that it was important to have sufficient time to draft good legislation.

“Rushing to approve such an important bill would produce flaws and weakness in the law,” he said.

NLD lawmaker Zaw Min, head of the Bill Committee, pushed back against opposition parliamentarians’ constitutional concerns, saying that was the purview of the recently appointed Constitutional Tribunal.

“All the lawmakers who are now attending this session, including me, don’t have the right to say that a bill is either not in accordance with or contradicts the Constitution,” he said.

“This responsibility belongs to the Constitutional Tribunal, according to the Article 322(b) of the Constitution,” he said, adding that it was “too early” to deliberate matters of constitutionality.

The bill states that the state counselor can give suggestions in the interests of the people and nation, as long as those proposals do not contravene the Constitution. The bill does not specify to whom those suggestions would be directed toward, and does not include any lawfully binding mechanism ensuring that the state counselor’s suggestions are implemented.

Article 5(c) states: “The state counselor shall collaborate with the cabinet, government offices, organizations, associations and individuals to accomplish the goals of the bill.”

Despite announcing publicly that she had set her sights on the presidency, the Nobel laureate Suu Kyi remains constitutionally barred from that office because her two children carry British passports, as did her late husband. Before the November election, she said she would be “above the president” if the NLD were to secure enough parliamentary seats to form the next government.

Secretary Dr. Myat Nyana Soe of the Bill Committee on Friday took to the floor and explained that the bill was drafted in order to implement the will of a public who voted in large majorities for the NLD and its popular leader Suu Kyi on Nov. 8.

With the bill’s passage in the Upper House, lawmakers from the Lower House will take up the legislation for discussion next week.