Intrigue Mounts over Ongoing Parleys on Presidency

By The Irrawaddy 2 February 2016

As jubilant incoming lawmakers attended the first session of the new Parliament’s Lower House on Monday, conjecture continues to build over reported negotiations behind the scenes between National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi and the military over the presidential post.

Suu Kyi has officially met Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing twice since the Nov. 8 election and informed sources suggest she has raised the question of amending the Constitution to allow her to assume the presidency.

NLD representatives have reportedly also held several other closed-door confabs with military leaders since the election.

Article 59(f) of Burma’s military-drafted charter disqualifies anyone with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president, effectively barring Suu Kyi whose two children are British nationals, as was her late husband.

While Suu Kyi may still hold the slim hope of becoming the nation’s next president, there are a few ominous signs. An opinion piece in the army-owned newspaper Myawaddy on Monday, written under the pen name Sai Wai Lu, claimed that charter change was impossible.

Some observers interpreted this as a blow to Suu Kyi’s efforts, or at least a sign that reported negotiations on the matter are yet to produce the desired breakthrough.

There has been past speculation as to whether Article 59(f) could be suspended, with the approval of military lawmakers, to allow a Suu Kyi presidency. However, some now-former lawmakers dismissed that notion as “unconstitutional” and it is unknown whether military lawmakers would support it.

The possibility of Suu Kyi assuming the presidency gained traction in some circles following a meeting between the NLD leader and former dictator Than Shwe. During that surprise dialogue, according to Than Shwe’s grandson, the junta-era leader referred to Suu Kyi as “the future leader” of Burma and said he would assist her as best he could.

On Sunday, local media outlet Voice Weekly suggested that Suu Kyi was still negotiating with the military to seek the presidency. The report also cited comments from NLD central committee member Win Htein that the party’s leader would seek amendments to the Constitution, but that such changes were unlikely within the first year of the incoming government’s term.

Other Burmese-language reports have suggested the military is also seeking clarification on the appointment of chief ministers in several key states and divisions. The president is constitutionally empowered to appoint the chief ministers of all Burma’s states and divisions and the NLD has indicated the posts would be awarded to lawmakers from within the party’s ranks.

In an interview with the Washington Post in late November, Min Aung Hlaing was asked whether he was willing to allow amendment of Article 59(f).

“I can’t decide this alone,” the commander-in-chief replied. “Under Chapter 12, the parliament must discuss any amendment to the constitution. I am not directly responsible for that.”

However, with major amendments requiring the support of over 75 percent of lawmakers, military MPs, who command a quarter of parliamentary seats, hold an effective veto over charter change.

Suu Kyi has pledged to rule “from above” the president if she remains constitutionally barred from the position. Several contenders for the role have been cited, including party patron Tin Oo, Suu Kyi’s physician Tin Myo Win or senior party member Htin Kyaw, among others, but the NLD’s first choice has remained a closely guarded secret.