Weighing Suu Kyi’s Role in a New Political Order

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 17 March 2016

When the National League for Democracy (NLD) unveiled its plan on Thursday for a reduction in the number of executive branch ministries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ranked at the top of the 21-portfolio roster, in notable contrast to the ministerial protocol of the outgoing government, which placed it below three security ministries at fourth in importance.

Where once was the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, now sits the Foreign Affairs Ministry atop the protocol hierarchy. The change-up is likely to further fuel speculation that NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi has her eye on the foreign affairs minister post, where she would have an official say on the powerful National Defense and Security Council, in lieu of the presidency that she has been denied.

In light of this, The Irrawaddy republishes a Commentary from Jan. 22, 2016, in which English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe laid out the case for why it is that Suu Kyi might want the position.

It’s one of several unanswered questions in what looms as a new era in Burmese politics.

With Aung San Suu Kyi constitutionally barred from assuming the country’s highest office, what formal political position, if any, will the ever popular pro-democracy leader seek when her party takes power in late March?

Undoubtedly, the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman’s ultimate aim is the presidency. However, Suu Kyi remains ineligible for the position due to Article 59(f) of Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which rules out individuals whose parents, children or spouse are foreign citizens.

Suu Kyi’s two children are British nationals, as was her late husband.

There has been speculation that the offending article may be suspended to allow Suu Kyi to assume the role. However, the likelihood of the military agreeing to such a proposition ahead of the impending transition of power appears remote.

With that in mind, some analysts have turned their attention to what official role Suu Kyi, 70, may take on in an NLD-government. The Lower House speaker of Burma’s Parliament was one plausible suggestion.

But that notion seemed off the mark after recent reports the NLD had nominated Win Myint and ethnic Karen Win Khaing Than, both NLD members, as speakers for the Lower and Upper House, respectively—notwithstanding the party’s subsequent refusal to confirm the reported nominations.

Other analysts contend Suu Kyi may remain as party leader, without taking any official position in the Parliament or the executive.

She would certainly still be “The Lady in charge” regardless of her formal political role. The NLD leader has made one point abundantly clear: Whoever officially leads the country, she will rule from “above the president” in the forthcoming government.

However, Suu Kyi may feel that assuming an official position is the best way to drive the government. There are also important points to consider regarding her influence over key decision-making bodies, perhaps most importantly, the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC).

The 11-member body is empowered by the Constitution to devise policy on certain military and security issues, including the right to petition the president to declare a nationwide state of emergency.

The council includes the president, two vice presidents, both Union Parliament speakers, the commander-in-chief and deputy commander of the Burma Armed Forces, and respective heads of the Foreign, Home, Defense and Border affairs ministries—the latter three of whom are military appointed.

A position on the powerful council, of which the military commands a majority (considering one vice president is selected by military lawmakers), will be a key concern of Suu Kyi.

In light of that—and with the presidency currently off-limits—Suu Kyi may opt to assume the role of foreign minister. In that role, whenever the council is held, Suu Kyi would retain a constitutional right to be there, alongside the Burma Army chief and other powerful military figures.

Of course, her “president” would be there too.

The role of foreign minister would not allow the NLD chairwoman to spend as much time on the coalface in Parliament, as she has done since winning a seat in April 2012 by-elections. However, in the new legislative chamber, the NLD will command a powerful majority and both speakers. Suu Kyi may deem it wise to focus her efforts on managing the executive arm of government.

Soon after the November general election, the Washington Post newspaper asked the leader of the victorious party: “When there is a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—or another gathering of heads of state—they are going to want you there. They are not going to want someone else.”

Suu Kyi’s answer was unequivocal: “I’ll go there. I’ll go along with the president, and he can sit beside me.”

To fulfill that vow, The Lady, despite her already distinguished standing around the world, may be aided by formally commanding a ministerial position. The position of foreign minister would seem an ideal choice.

No other person within the NLD is more qualified to grace the stage of international diplomacy and, even if she wasn’t foreign minister, it is Suu Kyi that world leaders will want to meet.

As for the Burmese people, most will be satisfied regardless of the 70-year-old’s official position—as long as she is the lady in charge.