Myanmar Review May Boost Suu Kyi Leadership Bid: Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s parliament plans to review the 2008 military-drafted constitution, a move that may allow former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi to become president after elections in two years.

Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament’s lower house and No. 3 in the former military junta, on March 15 called for a commission to recommend changes to the constitution. Suu Kyi, 67, is ineligible to become head of state because the constitution says the president and two vice presidents can’t have a child who is the citizen of a foreign country.

“They could as a gesture change part of the restriction on Suu Kyi,” said Derek Tonkin, former British ambassador to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos and chairman of Network Myanmar, which promotes reconciliation in the country. “I find it very interesting because there’s no need for them to amend it at this particular point. Someone has taken the initiative and clearly it comes from the top.”

Suu Kyi has strengthened ties with the military since joining parliament last year as she pushes for a constitutional change that would allow her to lead the country of 64 million people. President Thein Sein’s shift to democracy since 2010 elections held while Suu Kyi was detained prompted the U.S. and European Union to ease sanctions, attracting companies such as Google Inc., General Electric Co. and Norway’s Telenor ASA.

Shwe Mann proposed that a commission of legal experts and experienced people review the constitution, according to a statement published on parliament’s website. He mentioned no specific clauses to be amended.

Speedy Changes

“Though the 2008 constitution was drafted with goodwill to include every aspect, there are laws that are not in accordance with the present day due to speedy political changes,” Shwe Mann said. “It is strongly assumed that these facts should be reviewed in accordance with the time and situation.”

Myanmar’s constitution was approved by 92 percent of voters in a 2008 referendum that New York-based Human Rights Watch called a “sham”. The vote was held eight months after soldiers killed at least 20 people in quelling pro-democracy street protests led by Buddhist monks known as the Saffron Revolution.

The constitution automatically grants the military a quarter of seats in parliament. Since amendments need more than 75 percent of votes to pass, the military effectively can veto any changes. Amendments to certain sections, including the one that bars Suu Kyi from the presidency, also need a referendum.

The review is not aimed at any one person and should include measures to produce peace with armed ethnic groups, according to Win Oo, a member of Thein Sein’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Before 2015

“We will review the whole constitution section by section and check which sections should be amended,” Win Oo, who sits on a parliamentary committee for legal affairs, said by phone. “We will do it before 2015. We will try to make the constitution to be a better one.”

Ethnic minority parties will propose changes that grant their constituencies more power and money, according to Aye Maung, a lawmaker with the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party. Thein Sein is pushing to reach a cease-fire with the Kachin Independence Organization, one of more than 30 armed ethnic minority groups that have resisted central government control since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Australia announced today that it will boost defense ties and increase aid and trade links with Myanmar, while maintaining an arms embargo. Thein Sein is making the first visit to Australia by a Myanmar leader since 1974.

“I am here in part to display the changes that have taken place and ask for your country’s kind support and assistance in making our transition to peace, democracy and prosperity,” Thein Sein said in Canberra. “I hope you will appreciate that what we are undertaking has no parallel in modern times.”

‘Negotiated Compromise’

Suu Kyi in January said she was “fond” of the military and called for a “negotiated compromise” to amend the constitution. Her father General Aung San helped found the army in the 1940s when he led troops in a revolt against Japanese occupiers. He was assassinated in 1947, when Suu Kyi was two years old. More than 20 years later, she married Englishman Michael Aris and had two boys who are British citizens.

This month Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace prize winner who spent 15 years under house arrest, was named chairwoman of her National League for Democracy party. It expects a victory in 2015 elections after winning 43 of 44 seats in by-elections last year, which may give its lawmakers enough votes to elect the president.

Mine Protest

Known as “The Lady” in Myanmar, Suu Kyi faced criticism this week from local villagers after a parliamentary committee she headed said a copper mine in the country’s northwest should proceed even after residents held protests over pollution and land seizures. The project is a joint venture between military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and a subsidiary of Norinco International Cooperation Ltd., a Chinese defense company.

Myanmar’s economy may grow 6.3 percent in the fiscal year ending March 31, up from 5.5 percent a year earlier, and growth may reach about 7 percent over the next five years if reforms continue, the International Monetary Fund said in a January report. Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt plans to visit the country this month as it prepares to award telecommunications licenses and allow foreign banks to set up joint ventures.

The NLD has called for amending 12 constitutional clauses, including the qualifications of the president and the allocation of 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military. The party welcomes the constitutional review and is “cautiously optimistic,” party spokesman Ohn Kyaing said by phone.

“It is the very beginning stage,” he said. “The constitution should be amended before 2015, otherwise the 2015 elections based on the 2008 constitution would not be free and fair.”

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