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Dawn of a new hope in Myanmar? Suu Kyi still has to walk a tightrope

VS Seshadri | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:43 IST
The verdictIn November 2015, the people of Myanmar elected Aung San Suu Kyi\'s NLD party with a thumping majorityHowever, the 2008 constitution was drafted by the military, which has kept 25% parliamentary seats and key posts for itself

The sticking point

Suu Kyi can\'t be President as per the current constitution, because her sons are foreign nationalsThe declaration of candidates for the Presidential election will happen on 17 March

More in the story

Can a deal be struck with the military to make Suu Kyi President?What are the other challenges facing the NLD and the country?

Myanmar is on the threshold of a new political dawn. People have great expectations after having overwhelmingly voted for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 2015 general elections.

Although the outgoing Thein Sein government brought about a number of welcome reforms and greater openness during his five years in office after 50 years of military rule, his military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a crushing defeat in the polls, with people swaying towards the 'change' promised by the NLD.

But will a distinct change really come about? The country's constitution of 2008 was largely drafted by the military, and has given it an assured place in the governance of the country. The NLD has to cope with not only a 25% reservation in the Parliament for the military, but has to work with the military like a coalition partner, since certain key ministerial posts are reserved for it.

Also read: Winning was easy. Suu Kyi's real test is making Myanmar truly democratic

Can it learn to govern with the military and yet usher in change, within the limited room for manoeuvre?

Can Suu Kyi be President?

Sections in the NLD are hoping that Suu Kyi may still be able to become President, even though Article 59(f) of the constitution expressly bars anyone having a close relative who is a foreign national. Both of Suu Kyi's sons hold foreign nationality.

Tin Oo, the veteran patron of NLD, said earlier this month that the post must be given to party leader Suu Kyi.

The constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming President, because both her sons are foreign nationals

Some have talked about the possibility of suspending Article 59(f) with a simple majority vote in Parliament, citing a precedent from the U Nu/Ne Win era. But the 2008 constitution has no explicit provision for suspending an article, except in times of emergency. Unless the military is on board, the NLD may be taking a great risk if it proceeds only on the basis of a historical precedent.

It can also be argued that if one provision can be suspended now using a simple majority, then other provisions can also be suspended later using the same procedure.

Also read: Will Aung San Suu Kyi be named Myanmar's next president?

The other alternative may be to get Article 59(f) amended with the military's consent, which will ensure the 75% majority required to pass it in Parliament. Then, the issue goes for a national referendum, where a 'yes' vote is perhaps assured for Suu Kyi, even though it may take a while.

There is some speculation that the military could still be persuaded to accept this course, in return for accepting some of the demands it has reportedly made. These include chief ministerships of the three border ethnic states (Rakhine, Shan and Kachin) and of the Yangon region, apart from a few more ministerial berths at the Union level. These are in addition to the constitutionally-guaranteed ministries of Home, Border Affairs and Defence.

New date for Presidential election

As per the Constitution, three Vice-President candidates have to be chosen, one each by the elected members of the upper and lower houses of Parliament, and a third one by the group of military MPs belonging to both houses.

The combined house of Parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) then votes for these candidates, and the one who gets the maximum number of votes becomes the President and the other two serve as Vice-Presidents.

It was earlier expected that these names would become known by February. However, the Speaker of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw announced recently that 17 March will be the date for naming the three Vice-Presidential candidates and for the Presidential election. This now leaves more time for closed-door consultations. A third meeting between the armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi also took place on 17 February, but details are not known.

Also read: Myanmar president Thein Sein hails triumph of democracy before handing over power to Aung San Suu Kyi

The military's message

While rumours abound that a deal may still be worked out, the military has been sending a consistent message - don't expect constitutional changes at the moment.

A hard-hitting article in 'Myawaddy', the military newspaper, earlier this month said Article 59(f) should not be changed for eternity. The spokesman of the military contingent in the Parliament has also stated recently that there was no discussion between the NLD and the military about Article 59(f), and that the article cannot be amended without the armed forces' approval.

Furthermore, President Thein Sein, in his message to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw some days ago, has pointed out that as the highest legislative body, it had an obligation to lay emphasis upon doing things in conformity with the provisions enshrined in the constitution.

While a deal may still be worked out, the military says constitutional changes shouldn't be expected

Meanwhile, there are also unconfirmed reports that the armed forces chief, who was to retire this year on reaching sixty, has secured an extension for five more years.

Above the President

Considering the circumstances, it does appear that NLD may have to contend with nominating a candidate other than Suu Kyi for the post of President, at least temporarily. She may have to continue being the party leader, who will provide guidance informally and be 'above the President', as she promised before the polls.

Also read: Myanmar: Asia's youngest democracy begins Parliament session dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi's party

She may also need an arrangement of regular consultation with the chief of the armed forces on important matters, for which the understanding and agreement of the latter will be essential. This will be a clumsy and somewhat risky arrangement, and much will also depend on the personality of the Presidential nominee. Suu Kyi has kept the name a closely-guarded secret, with no indication other than he or she will be a civilian.

Walking a tightrope

The newly-elected Parliament has commenced work earlier this month. There are many challenges that lie ahead, even in the formation of the Union government and in the 14 states/regions.

In two ethnic majority states, Shan and Rakhine, the NLD by itself does not also have the majority. A fine balance that reflects the electoral wins but also secures the confidence and support of the ethnic groups will be essential.

This can create an environment for moving forward further with ethnic reconciliation and the peace process, which Suu Kyi has already said will be a priority.

Also read: Manipur-Myanmar attacks: the violence is unlikely to stop

The NLD must also be working out what the priorities and programmes of the new government will be, so that its newly-elected President can announce them on assuming the charge on 31 March. Many expert groups constituted by it, including an economic team, are known to be at work.

The NLD must also be working out what the priorities and programmes of the new government will be

It will be important to see how it works to strengthen the institutional capacity for effective implementation. A big challenge may be to reform the general administration department, a centralised institution established by the military that falls under the Home ministry, which will remain in military control. A good working relationship with the armed forces will be important.

A ray of hope

Myanmar has come a long way in the last five years in transitioning towards greater openness and a version of guided democracy.

Also read: Myanmar is not Pakistan: 5 misconceptions about India's cross border attack

Despite constitutional constraints, Suu Kyi has fought for change because she recognises how much more the country needs in terms of reconciliation. The people have given her and the NLD a resounding mandate.

Over 25 years ago, a similar huge mandate went nowhere. Now, with a more mature and politically experienced Suu Kyi, the country has perhaps the best chance to usher in that change.

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First published: 20 February 2016, 10:24 IST
VS Seshadri

Seshadri is vice-chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries, and former Ambassador of India to Myanmar