Opinion: Can Aung San Suu Kyi deal with constitutional change?
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Opinion: Can Aung San Suu Kyi deal with constitutional change?

It is too early to start campaigning for Burma’s next general elections in 2015, but major parties like the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and National League for Democracy (NLD) are already making preparations. Ahead of the next polls one of the major issues is the question of constitutional review.

Leaders from various ethnic parties said creating a federal system is impossible under the current constitution during a three-day (8-10 May) Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Workshop on Burma constitutional reform organized by the Sydney Law School at Yangon’s Mi Casa Hotel.

According to Eleven Media Group (EMG), Dr Melissa Crouch from the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law made a comparison between Indonesian constitution and 2008 constitution of Burma during the second-day session of the workshop.  Dr Crouch said that the National Defense and Security Council has chosen the defense services commander-in-chief. But the constitution states no fixed term or set qualifications for the commander-in-chief. Neither does it state any rules or laws on how to remove the commander-in-chief. The 2008 constitution gives the military a much bigger role and the defense services commander-in-chief has more power than the president, she said.

Aye Thar Aung, chairman of the Arakan League for Democracy, added that the current constitution does not go with the basic principle of democracy. Besides, it does not protect the rights of the ethnic people.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and chairperson of the National League for Democracy, said at a press conference following a three-day workshop that the strictest restrictions that make the 2008 constitution unchangeable must be removed before any constitutional amendment could succeed.

Section 435 of the 2008 Constitution says that if 20 percent of the total number of the Union Parliament representatives submits a Bill to amend the Constitution, it shall be considered by the Union Parliament. Section 436 states that the constitution can only be amended with the prior approval of more than 75  percent of all the representatives of the Union Parliament, followed by a nationwide referendum.

So it is understandable that the military-made constitution seems unchangeable, especially if it seeks to remove unelected army representatives from the legislative body.

However, Aung San Suu Kyi declared her willingness in October 2012 to serve as her country’s president and her party’s intention to amend the undemocratic clauses in the constitution to allow her to do so. Suu Kyi said it is her duty as leader of her National League for Democracy to be willing to take the executive office if that is what the people want. She said a clause in the constitution effectively barring her from the job is one of several her party seeks to change.

Section 59 (f) of the Constitution – Qualifications of the President and Vice-Presidents – says the presidential candidate –  or a parent, spouse, or child – cannot owe allegiance to a foreign power, nor be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country. This seems to be designed specifically to keep Suu Kyi from power. Section 60 is also an enormous barrier for Suu Kyi. It says, “The President shall be elected by the Presidential Electoral College.” Indisputably, Electoral College members will be chosen along the lines of military’s secured policy.

The military still holds a huge amount of power in Burma. For example, the 11-member National Defense and Security Council with the President keeps hold of the constitutional right to declare an emergency  at any time. Most analysts believe that there will be little hope amending the key sections of the 2008 constitution as the military will not agree to give up its legislative clout. Even if the NLD gains more than 50 percent of the seats through the 2015 general elections, it looks impossible to overcome the constitutional barriers designed to keep Suu Kyi from power.

Transferring the decision-making power to a non-military candidate would mean giving up immeasurable economic interests seized by the name of military safety. The Burmese military set up two economic enterprises, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (UMEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) in 1990 and 1993 respectively. Both enterprises are still exploiting the country’s key economic sectors with no benefits flowing to the citizens of Burma, especially the ethnic population.

The country’s important natural resources and heavy industriesincluding import, export and service sectors are monopolized and exploited by the UMEHL, MEC and their allies, while most citizens have been living in dire poverty for decades.

In brief, the 2008 constitution gives the military a decisive role through the commander-in-chief who holds more power than the president in order to protect the UMEHL, MEC and their allies. Thus, any attempts by Suu Kyi’ to amend the constitution will face stiff resistance from the military’s hidden hand.