Will Suu Kyi Give Up 59(F)?

By Aung Zaw 20 February 2016

Aung San Suu Kyi is the rightful leader of Burma and should be president of the country.

The charismatic National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman would raise the nation’s profile and navigate a dignified entry into the international community. The armed forces’ leaders, including Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, whom Suu Kyi has met three times in recent months, have no doubt reached a similar realization, but that doesn’t mean she will be the country’s next president. Time is running out: if the 2008 Constitution cannot be amended now, then the Lady will have to formulate a back-up plan.

It is generally accepted that the military leadership is reluctant to negotiate a waiver of the constitution’s controversial Article 59(f). The clause prohibits any Burmese citizen with a foreign spouse or children from assuming the presidency, thereby excluding Aung San Suu Kyi from the position, since her two sons hold British citizenship, as did her late husband.

Yet Snr-Gen Than Shwe, former regime leader and an architect of the military-drafted constitution, reportedly backed Suu Kyi’s political ambitions after meeting her on December 5 last year.

“It is the truth that she will become the future leader of the country. I will support her with all of my efforts,” Than Shwe was widely quoted as saying at the meeting with Suu Kyi. There is no doubt that the former general has remained influential in shaping Burmese politics and the military. Yet the official line from both the armed forces and government is that Than Shwe no longer exercises his power in these circles.

It is an interesting time indeed: top army leaders remain tight-lipped on the controversial issue of a Suu Kyi presidency. Some recent reports suggest that military leaders have expressed strong resistance to amending the constitution. But this also could be interpreted to mean that a crack has appeared in the ranks.

This week, Suu Kyi held a third round of talks with army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, but no details of the meeting were provided. It is confirmed that he has maintained a good relationship with Suu Kyi, but he also needs to watch his back: he knows there is military objection to her leadership.

However, at their second meeting, the two sides discussed the rule of law and the ongoing process of creating lasting peace in the country. It is quite curious that both have stayed mum on the status of 59(f), but former and active army leaders have privately said that waiving or suspending the ban is unlikely.

Min Aung Hlaing is rumored to be extending his tenure in the army for the next five years. Alone, he can’t order constitutional change, but it should be noted that he also has 166 military MPs sitting in both houses of Parliament, known to vote as a bloc based on orders from above.

First, the issue of a potential amendment would have to be discussed in Parliament. But a big hurdle remains: to amend any clause requires the support of at least 75 percent of its members. The continued quota of 25 percent military in the legislative body maintains the army’s powerful political role in Burma. They are careful to preserve this privilege; in June 2015, army MPs shot down a proposal aimed to reduce the share of house votes needed to amend the Constitution to 70 percent.

Time is running out as Suu Kyi and her party need to nominate candidates for a president who can take power in April. In any case, she has said that she will be “above the president”: her pick for the leading role will most likely be a trustworthy follower. She will have to select someone she can work with for now—some optimists say that even if she cannot assume the role immediately, the Lady will become president sometime later this year.

Local and international news has speculated about several potential presidential nominees, including Tin Oo, the former army chief; Dr Tin Myo Win, Suu Kyi’s personal physician; Dr. Myo Aung and Win Htein, key members of the NLD’s central executive committee and Htin Kyaw, a senior party member.

Suu Kyi has kept everyone guessing. Some insiders in the NLD have said that the two most likely candidates are Tin Oo and Dr. Myo Aung. A concern about Tin Oo, 89, is his advanced age, despite appearing to be in good health. If he becomes head of state in Burma’s young and fragile democracy, even temporarily, he will be one of the oldest serving presidents in the world.

A former military commander in chief loyal to the late Gen Aung San and strongman Gen Ne Win, Tin Oo joined the army in 1946, two years before Burma’s independence. He was forced to retire in 1974 and served seven years in prison after being accused of treason by Ne Win. Released in 1980, he returned to university to study law, preparing him to later co-found the NLD. He was active in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and remained loyal to Suu Kyi in the years that followed. Recently, he told reporters that he believed Suu Kyi should be Burma’s president.

Tin Oo appeared with Suu Kyi at the last campaign rally before November’s general election. Was it a signal? Again, the respected former army chief was seen giving a speech on February 12, which is celebrated as Union Day. Now is the time to watch, rather than speculate—those with definitive analyses or answers can easily be fooled. With the exception of Suu Kyi and the NLD’s inner circle, who knows if Tin Oo will become president instead of the Lady?

At the end of the day, many say that the outcome is simply a matter of the country’s fate.