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Is Suu Kyi eclipsing Myanmar's peace process?

The pro-democracy icon may not be able to run for president unless the constitution is changed.

Last updated: 17 Feb 2014 10:39
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Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi may not be eligible to run for president in 2015 [AP]

For the small troop of protesters marching through Yangon, Myanmar's mildewed commercial capital, their chant is as salient as it is obscure. 

"Law 59f," a woman screams into a megaphone. "We don't want it," responds a chorus of a hundred-odd demonstrators. 

Responding to a recent parliamentary constitutional review, the group is demanding the abolition of a clause barring pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from running in the 2015 elections. 

Bemused street food vendors and their patrons watch or film the spectacle with their smart phones. "Aung San Suu Kyi is the architect of democracy and human rights. She is our leader. We love her," says Aung Naing, a demonstrator at the rally. "Why do we have no right to allow her to be president?" 

The darling of Western governments, the Nobel laureate's name is a byword for stoic resistance to the military dictatorships that mismanaged the southeast Asian nation for almost half a century. 

The tenacious 68-year-old, who spent a dozen years under house arrest, is wildly popular. After boycotting the flawed ballot in 2011, her National League for Democracy won a landslide parliamentary by-election in 2012, winning 43 of the 44 seats they contested in the 440-seat parliament. 

Suu Kyi is a shoe-in for the presidency, but only if the arcane clause barring anyone with family members who "owe allegiance to a foreign power" is lifted. Her two sons hold British passports and she was once married to a British academic. 

Call for constitutional change in Myanmar

"I would like to highlight one amendment that is very simple, and very important. I refer to 59f, the presidency clause," said Hugo Swire, a British Foreign Office minister, on a trip to Myanmar in January. "Without amendments to allow all citizens to contest the presidency, the 2015 general elections cannot and will not be fair elections. And without fair elections, the credibility of Burma's democratic reforms will be cast into doubt." 

Yet experts say diplomatic capital spent on Suu Kyi's presidential aspirations are eclipsing wider reforms needed to address the military's stranglehold of parliament, a major sticking point in ongoing peace negotiations with ethnic armed groups.

'It's not the only flaw' 

"59f is objectionable because it looks like it has been written with the specific intention of excluding Aung San Suu Kyi. But it's not the only flaw in the constitution, and probably not the most important," said Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst. 

More than a dozen ethnic armed groups, some whom have waged the longest-running insurgencies in the world, are demanding greater political, economic and cultural autonomy before they lay down their arms. "Right now the negotiations are going well, but in terms of the constitution it is stuck," said Dau Hka, a spokesman for the technical advisory team for the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). 

The armed groups, of which the KIO is one of the largest, also want to federalise the military by integrating their forces into the army, a proposal deeply unpopular with the generals. "Resolving resource and power-sharing issues between the centre and the ethnic minority borderlands is probably the most critical issue facing the country," Horsey told Al Jazeera. 

Nonetheless, British and US foreign policy appears fixated on the election of "The Lady", as Suu Kyi is known, making only secondary references to the concerns of ethnic groups - issues which, if left unresolved, have the potential of flaring into violence before the 2015 election.

The army appoints one-quarter of the parliament's members, which represents a de facto veto against constitutional changes. It also appoints three key ministerial posts and one vice president.

'A near-sighted strategy'

"The international community seems more vested in installing Suu Kyi as president than in tackling the long-term challenge of reducing the enormous constitutional power of the military," said Dave Mathiesen from New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It's a near-sighted strategy to push for one person to gain power, when they're unlikely to have much influence over a parliamentary system designed to preserve military privilege."

At this stage it remains unclear whether Suu Kyi will be eligible in 2015. But time is running out. She would need more than 75 percent of the votes to change the constitution, but the hostile military holds 25 percent of the seats.

There could be an appearance that [Suu Kyi] is putting her own self-interest above that of ethnic groups.

- Andrew McLeod, law lecturer at Oxford University

The results of a 108-member parliamentary constitutional review released at the end of January found that 5,740 people requested Suu Kyi's clause 59f be amended in her favour, 55 that it be added to, 194 that it be removed and 51 that it be retained. 

Kyaw Min San, a lawyer for local law firm Justice For All, toured the country canvassing opinions during the consultation process. He said people in Myanmar's ethnic minority areas are more concerned with appointing chief ministers from their communities instead of the presidency, and with reducing military involvement in the parliament and judiciary. "I think 59f is important, but more regional representation and more democratic procedures... are much more important," Min San told Al Jazeera.

The report made no firm recommendations, but said parliament should prioritise clauses that require no referendum, and emphasised the concerns of ethnic groups, such as decentralisation and autonomy.

This signifies official recognition that the peace process and constitutional reform process should be linked more closely, and is a shot across the bow at Suu Kyi, said Andrew McLeod, a law lecturer at Oxford University. "If Daw Suu is to continue pushing to amend the presidential qualifications, there could be an appearance that she's putting her own self-interest above that of ethnic groups," McLeod told Al Jazeera by telephone.

'Everyone is a reformer in Burma'

Now a 31-member implementation committee, heavily stacked with members of the ruling party and the military, will take the reins of the review process. 

Since her release from house arrest in November 2010, Suu Kyi has been careful to curry favour with the former generals responsible for the drastic political and economic reforms. The icon of dissent is even accused of being too cosy with the military, a strategy born of pragmatism in her bid for the presidency. 

Both incumbent President Sein Thein and speaker of parliament Thura Shwe Mann, Suu Kyi's most likely adversary in 2015, have in recent weeks sounded positive about allowing "The Lady" to contend in 2015, although they warn of being "too greedy" with constitutional amendments. 

Ultimately, the key changes will be resolved behind closed doors. The outstanding question is how far Myanmar's reformers can push the military to relinquish power. 

"I think everyone is a reformer in Burma. I think the difference between people is how fast and how much," said McLeod.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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