US Ambassador Supports Constitutional Reform, Calls Article 59F ‘Relic of the Past’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 10 January 2014

RANGOON — As Burma’s ruling party faces growing pressure from the public and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to amend the Constitution ahead of the 2015 elections, the United States Ambassador has expressed support for changing the charter’s controversial Article 59 (f), which he called “a relic from the past.”

The article prevents National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Suu Kyi from becoming president, as it states that a president’s spouse or children cannot be citizens of a foreign country. Suu Kyi was married to British national Micheal Aris, who died in 1999, and she has two sons who are British subjects.

Derek Mitchell said in remarks that he could not understand how a democratic Burma could have a provision in its charter that prevents Suu Kyi from running for the presidency.

“[I]t seems curious to me that someone who is the leader of a major political party, chair of a major parliamentary committee, who has sacrificed herself for decades as a courageous patriot committed to the success and strength of the country, someone clearly very popular with the people, will be excluded from presidential contention,” he said.

“I can understand perhaps in 1947, even in 1974, there might be a constitutional provision that reflects fear of family connections to the outside world. But not in the 21st century, in a new, open democratic Burma that seeks to integrate itself to the world. This provision, this fear, seems a relic of the past,” Mitchell said.

He said the US did not want to see the Constitution changed because it favored any of Burma’s presidential candidates, adding, “We simply want to see a fair fight that reflects the will of the people.”

The 2008 charter is widely seen as undemocratic because it was drafted by the then ruling military junta and pushed through in a referendum that has been criticized as rigged.

In addition to blocking a Suu Kyi presidency, the Constitution also concentrates great political power in the hands of the military, which has permanent control over 25 percent of Parliament seats, while ethnic regions are under tight control of the central government.

Since becoming an MP in 2012, Suu Kyi has called for broad-ranging changes to the Constitution, but the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Burma’s powerful military have dragged their feet on such discussions.

In recent months, however, the NLD leader has been increasingly vocal about the need for constitutional reform and at one point threatened to boycott the 2015 elections if amendments are not made.

This week, during a visit to Chin State, she again focused attention on the issue and called on Burma’s powerful military to back amendments. “We need to convince them [the military]. The situation of the Constitution is dividing the military and the people,” she told a crowd of 1,500 residents of Tedim town.

Last week in Rangoon, several dozen activists, including leading activists the 88’ Generation Students Group, gathered in front of the City Hall to protest and demand that Parliament amend Article 59(f) and scrap other oppressive laws.

In his remarks, Mitchell raised questions about those who oppose constitutional reform but praised USDP Chairman Shwe Mann, who has come out publicly in favor of amending provision 59 (f).

“He has said he would like a fair fight, in which the people will have a choice between parties and leaders, and the winner wins, and the loser becomes the loyal opposition,” the ambassador said. “That is a very honorable position, and very democratic. I salute him for this principled view. Again as an observer, I just wonder why others don’t view it that way.”

Last month, the USDP announced that the party was putting forth 57 amendments to the Constitution, including an amendment to Article 59 (f) that would allow Suu Kyi to become president as long as her two sons renounce their British citizenship and become Burmese citizens.

Suu Kyi reportedly said this amendment would make little difference and suggested that it is strange that she would have to ask her adult sons to change their nationality. “I know the proposed deletion of this requirement is not to benefit me, but I don’t know who will benefit from this,” she told Radio Free Asia.

In a televised speech to the country this month, President Thein Sein said changing the Constitution could promote national reconciliation, adding that he “would not want restrictions imposed on the right of any citizen to become the leader of the country.”

Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee has been formed to review the Constitution and consider amendments, with political parties and members of the public submitting recommendations. Earlier last week, the committee said it had received 323,110 suggestions via 28,247 letters ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline for public feedback.

It is expected to submit its report during the next house session, which starts on Jan. 13.