Myanmar News: Aang San Suu Kyi Wants to Be President, But Will the Country's Generals Stop Her?

One of the biggest developments in South Asia over the past 18 months has been the gradual political reform in Myanmar, opening the country to the rest of the world. A key leader to re-emerge during this process to become leader of the opposition and chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD) is Aung San Suu Kyi. In a country deeply divided by distinct ethnic groups, taped together by an autocratic military that has maintained its rule using brutal means, Suu Kyi is a figure that transcends all, representing the important ideals of tolerance, secularism, human rights, and democracy. Recently Suu Kyi formally spoke of her intent to become president of Myanmar. But the question is not her popularity or her ability to lead, but whether the military will allow her to do so.

In 2015 Myanmar is due to hold its next election. Presently the constitution blocks anyone whose spouses or children are overseas citizens from becoming president or vice-president. Suu Kyi’s two sons and her late husband are British citizens, automatically disqualifying her. The constitution can be amended, but in order to pass, an amendment requires at least 75% parliamentary approval. But 25% of the body’s seats are reserved for the military, while the majority of those seats remaining are held by former soldiers and their business associates. Even if the amendment were to pass successfully, procedure dictates that the change still requires majority approval in a nationwide referendum. To put it plainly, amending the constitution is an extremely time-consuming process and cannot be amended without the military deciding to do so.

A Nobel laureate, Suu Kyi is easily Myanmar’s most internationally recognized leader and has been asked about her intent to become president on many occasions, but she has consistently remained coy with her answer. Addressing world leaders and heads of business on June 6 at the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw she declared her intent to become president: "I want to run for president and I'm quite frank about it…. If I pretended that I didn't want to be president I wouldn't be honest”. According to a New York Times article Suu Kyi also expressed her desire in the Burmese language, which Burmese journalists say is a first.

According to some experts, it will be almost impossible for her to amend the constitution and become an eligible candidate. Tint Swe, a former member of the NLD and chairman of the Burma Center, said, “The regime in power before 2008 did this intentionally, making it almost impossible to amend the constitution”. Remember also that Suu Kyi was imprisoned for over a decade by the military.  

Making any definite prediction or ruling out Suu Kyi would be naïve because Myanmar itself is evolving and its political climate is far from stable. Since the gradual series of reforms instituted by General Thein Sein in 2010, thousands of political prisoners have been released, censorship has been scaled back, trade unions have been legalized, and Suu Kyi herself was released from house arrest. President Obama and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have made official visits as Myanmar has begun shedding its pariah state status, opening itself to an international system of political and financial networks. But this change has neither been enough nor all-encompassing. During this time the military has been in a civil war against the Kachin Independence group, Rohingya Muslims, and groups from the Arakan state. Decades of oppressive rule have made it very difficult to achieve trust, and without trust lasting peace is unattainable.

In the same address at the World Economic Forum, Suu Kyi said she refuses to indulge in optimism in regards to amending the constitution. Instead she said, “Hope has to be backed up by endeavor and rather than hope and be optimistic for the constitution to be amended, we are going to work for the constitution to be amended”. Clearly Suu Kyi already began this endeavor much before her speech, because in March the Myanmar parliament approved the formation of a committee for constitutional amendment. After decades of political struggle Suu Kyi's intent to run for president has now emerged very clearly. Naturally the military will be unwilling to give up further power and allow an individual whom it had imprisoned for decades to become president. However, Myanmar has changed rapidly over the past 18 months and Suu Kyi, who has fought a host of obstacles already, could well ascend to the top in what would be a Mandela-type moment for the country.

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Dev Lewis

Outreach Associate at Gateway House ICGR. I write on geopolitics and foreign policy issues in Asia, keep a special eye on India-China relations.

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