Observers Play down Prospects of Charter Change in Final Parliamentary Session

By Nyein Nyein 22 December 2015

Political observers, including an incumbent lawmaker, have hosed down suggestions a constitutional clause that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from assuming the presidency could be suspended in the current and final parliamentary session.

Earlier this month, ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker Thura Aung Ko told the BBC’s Burmese service that Article 59(f) of the 2008 Constitution could be suspended with the support of a majority of lawmakers, allowing Suu Kyi to formally assume the country’s top post.

The article in question states that individuals whose children or spouse “owe allegiance to a foreign power” cannot assume the presidency, barring Suu Kyi because her late husband and children hold British passports.

While there is no constitutional provision related to the suspension of a given article, interpretations have varied as to whether the notion has currency.

Head of the Myanmar Lawyers Network, Aung Thein, told The Irrawaddy this week that “as there is no such limitation [on the suspension of a clause] described in the Constitution, Union lawmakers could bypass or suspend it with majority approval.”

“It all depends on the lawmakers who represent the public’s voice,” he said. “They can decide whether it should be temporarily dodged for a certain period, based on the reasoning that the clause could not be amended.”

Prior to the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s landslide victory in last month’s general election, Suu Kyi had repeatedly insisted she would be above any individual the party nominated for the role of president.

The NLD secured a sufficient majority on Nov. 8 to put forward two candidates for president, as selected by Lower and Upper House MPs, with military lawmakers selecting a third. The deciding vote is determined by the Union Parliament, which serves as the country’s electoral college.

The possibility of Suu Kyi assuming the presidency gained traction in some circles in recent weeks, following a meeting between the NLD leader and former dictator Than Shwe. During that surprise confab, 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.

But other observers see little chance of legislative moves to enable a Suu Kyi presidency in the current parliamentary session, which is scheduled to conclude at the end of January.

“It is impossible to suspend [the clause] in the current parliament,” said Aye Maung, an incumbent lawmaker with the Arakan National Party who lost his seat in the Nov. 8 poll.

“We have to follow the constitutional procedures, as of chapter 12 of the Constitution. If we try to suspend the clause, in an unconstitutional way, that would affect the future parliamentarians’ efforts to amend that clause or other clauses.”

Aye Maung suggested that an NLD-dominated legislature in 2016 should push for amendments.

In June this year, Burma’s Union Parliament voted down changes to the junta-drafted charter, including Article 59(f), with military lawmakers, who make up 25 percent of the chamber’s MPs, wielding their effective veto power.

“We have waited for this long and we just have to wait a little bit more,” Aye Maung said. “The new lawmakers can mobilize the 25 percent of military representatives for the changes.”

Rangoon-based political commentator Yan Myo Thein agreed there was little likelihood of constitutional change during the Parliament’s final session. He also raised the prospect of further constitutional difficulties if Suu Kyi did manage to assume the top post.

“If she takes the role of President, she is constitutionally barred from leading the party, which would lead to difficulties for the party,” Yan Myo Thein said. “I am sure that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is also aware of that situation.”