Guest Column

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Has Seized the Prime Moment to Amend the Constitution

By Joe Kumbun 1 February 2019

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept power in the 2015 general elections. Amending the Constitution was one of her campaign promises. At a forum in Singapore in August, the state counselor said “amendment of the Constitution was one of the goals of our government,” reaffirming her commitment to the cause.

But why is she forging ahead with amendments at this moment? The answer is twofold.

First, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wants to push for amendments while China can influence the Myanmar military. There is a saying in Myanmar, “An island relies on reeds just as reeds rely on the island, ” meaning that a person offers help when the other is in need and vice versa. In a recent column, I wrote that the state counselor was using China to influence the military in order to achieve her political goals — amending the Constitution in particular — by helping China fulfill its own interests in Myanmar.

In November Daw Aung San Suu Kyi formed a steering committee to oversee work in Myanmar relating to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Since then, China has once again started pushing Myanmar to restart the Myitsone dam projects in Kachin State. Though most of the country opposes the dam, the government recently hinted at a compromise. At an investment summit in Naypyitaw on Tuesday, U Thaung Tun, the minister for investment and foreign economic relations, said the government wants to find a solution because it values its relationship with China.

As I recently wrote, “Once the faltering peace process embarks on the right track, Aung San Suu Kyi will then be able to push for the amendment of the Constitution.” She is now seizing the prime moment to amend the Constitution. When asked by reporters for his views on the move on Thursday, military chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said he had always been in favor of amending the charter.

Moreover, after the military announced a unilateral ceasefire in late December, negotiations between the government’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center and some ethnic armed groups have started to improve.

It appears Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s bargaining chip with China has worked. As a quid pro quo, she appears to have allowed China to restart the Myitsone dam project. The government may be trying to draw attention to the Constitution to distract from the dam.

Second, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party want to push the amendment because the next general elections are approaching. In by-elections held in November, the NLD won only seven of the 13 races it contested, far below its expectations. It was a wakeup call for the NLD to start preparing for 2020, and to push for constitutional amendments as soon as possible.

But only time will tell whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party can amend all the articles of the Constitution they want to before the next general elections arrive.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.