Even Without Puppetry, Suu Kyi Presidency Could Have Strings Attached

By Nyein Nyein 4 February 2016

On Wednesday, Aung San Suu Kyi urged patience with her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), as reporters prodded her on who would be appointed to key government posts—including the presidency.

The trouble with Suu Kyi’s silence on the matter is that speculation has swiftly filled the void, and rumors now run rampant that The Lady, as she is affectionately called, is negotiating with the military to allow herself a shot at the job.

Article 59(f) of Burma’s military-drafted Constitution disqualifies anyone with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president, effectively barring Suu Kyi because her two children are British nationals, as was her late husband. The clause is viewed as a deliberate attempt to sideline her.

As the NLD assumed a majority in the Union Parliament this week, following a landslide win in the Nov. 8 election, party patron Tin Oo remarked that the popular chairwoman, Suu Kyi, “should be the president,” vowing to act as a “stepping stone” to her ascension. Other party members, speaking to The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity, said that a motion to “suspend” the prohibitive article was already in the works.

While Suu Kyi has already made clear her intention to rule “above the president,” she will need one of two titles—President or Foreign Affairs Minister—to secure a role in Burma’s most powerful political body: the National Defense and Security Council. But beyond her own ambitions and power plays, it is clear that the electorate overwhelmingly favors her as the country’s leader. So is it possible?

According to Ko Ni, a lawyer and a key legal advisor to the NLD, it would be difficult, but not impossible. The new Parliament will first need to form a drafting committee to draw up the amendment, and then the bill would need to be approved and signed by the president.

“The proposal would have to go through the steps in accordance with existing law,” Ko Ni said, overcoming all the requisite hurdles built into Burma’s executive structure. Nonetheless, where there’s a will there’s a way.

The debate over suspending 59(f) gained traction shortly after the election, when former MP Thura Aung Ko, a member of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), raised the issue in a December parliamentary session. Others involved in the movement argue that there is precedent: in 1959, Burma’s legislature approved a constitutional amendment to clause 116 of the country’s first charter, allowing the late Gen. Ne Win to become prime minister.

Others say that the precedent proves a legal possibility, but that the military’s stronghold over the legislature would make the plan unlikely without serious backroom deals that might be viewed unfavorably. Because the military still holds 25 percent of parliamentary seats, it would need to be convinced to back the measure in order to secure the 75-plus percent majority needed to amend the clause. It’s a tall order, even for a party that won nearly 80 percent of contested seats nationwide. Because of the guaranteed military bloc, the NLD only holds 59.3 percent of total seats.

Hitting the mark would require not only seeking out at least some military support, but also that of smaller parties. Even the biggest ethnic parties—the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD)—account for only about 5 percent of Parliament combined. The USDP makes up another 6 percent, roughly.

Because of the high threshold needed to suspend or amend parts of the charter, theories have begun to emerge—often in the form of rumors on social media—that backroom deals are being made between Suu Kyi and Burma Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Political analyst Yan Myo Thein suggested that some sort of deal would have to be made to entice the military to hand over the presidency. But what form might such an agreement take?

On Suu Kyi’s end, Yan Myo Thein recommended adding a “condition” to 59(f), instead of suspending it entirely. Instead of removing the article, this would simply create an exemption for Suu Kyi, which might be easier to achieve. Such exemptions already exist in the charter, for example, Article 121(j) exempts defense services personnel from a constitutional ban on civil service members serving as lawmakers.

As for what the military might want in return, it’s anyone’s guess.

Khin Zaw Win, director of Tampadipa Institute, said he had heard rumors that the NLD might consider trading off a few important state and divisional chief minister posts in exchange for the presidency, a theory that—while not implausible—remains unsubstantiated.

“We are hearing all sorts of rumors about bargaining for four chief ministers: Rangoon, Arakan, Shan and Kachin,” Khin Zaw Win said, adding that, if true, “it would not be a worthwhile tradeoff; the mandate given by the electorate doesn’t include cutting deals like this.”