Clock Is Ticking For Aung San Suu Kyi's Presidential Bid

Jun 27, 2014
Originally published on June 27, 2014 8:31 am

Time is running out for Myanmar's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in her bid to become president.

The long-serving political prisoner and democracy activist is now 67. If she wins general elections next year, she could become Asia's most famous politician.

But, for now, the country's constitution, which came into effect in 2008, bars her from running. The rule disqualifies anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals from holding the office of president or vice president. Suu Kyi's late husband was a British citizen, and so are her two sons. The charismatic Nobel laureate and her supporters say the former ruling junta wrote it precisely to block her presidential bid.

Also in the constitution are provisions that guarantee the military one-quarter of the seats in Parliament and require a 75 percent majority to make any changes to the constitution. Taken together, the regulations give the army an effective veto.

At a recent rally, Suu Kyi challenged the army to give up this power.

"I'd like to ask the military, are you really happy that the constitution has given you privileges that other people do not have? You should think seriously about this. I hate to say it, but your guns are the source of your military strength. I understand that your guns give you the upper hand," she said. "But does this make you more dignified — or less?"

Last week, a parliamentary committee charged with exploring constitutional amendments said it would not change the section barring Suu Kyi from the presidency.

Aung Thein Linn, a ruling party lawmaker and former brigadier general under the junta, says he personally supports amending the constitution. However, he doesn't specify which parts he'd be willing to change.

"Some parts of the constitution should be changed in a gradual and democratic way," he says. "If some parts of the constitution are weak, they should be changed, so that the charter can be more complete."

As for Aung San Suu Kyi, two years as a politician appear to have dented her halo, and some ethnic minority and opposition politicians have become disenchanted with her.

Opposition lawmaker U Thein Nyunt left Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, or NLD, four years ago in order to form his own political party.

He suggests that Suu Kyi's push for constitutional reform is mainly about furthering her own political ambitions.

"We've followed her leadership for two decades," he says, "but she's failed to get any results for her country. It is obvious now that she is not considering the people, but only her own power."

On Monday, the U.S. State Department urged Myanmar to amend the constitution in order to make next year's elections more free and fair.

Myanmar told the U.S. to mind its own business.

Thein Nyunt says the government and ruling party will amend the constitution, but only in ways that benefit them.

And he says that will leave Suu Kyi with no shot at the presidency.

"An Aung San Suu Kyi presidency is the dream of the international community and local activists. It's not everybody's dream," he says. "History will continue whether she is elected or not."

Even if Suu Kyi can't be president, since her NLD party swept special parliamentary elections two years ago, it stands a chance of ousting the ruling party in next year's general elections.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's talk about some modern-day political turmoil. Time is running out for Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader, in her bid to become president. If she wins general elections next year, it could make her one of the major leaders of Asia. But for now, the country's constitution bars her from running. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, she's facing an uphill battle to change that.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thousands of supporters cheer on Aung San Suu Kyi at a rally demanding changes to the constitution. The charismatic Nobel laureate says the former ruling junta wrote it to keep her from becoming president because it disqualifies anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi's late husband was a British citizen and so are her two sons. The constitution also guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in parliament. As a three-quarter's majority is needed to change the constitution, that gives the army an effective veto. At the rally, she challenged the army to give up this power.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: (Through translator) I'd like to ask the military - are you really happy that the constitution has given you privileges that other people do not have? You should think seriously about this. I hate to say it, but your guns are the source of your military strength. I understand that your guns give you the upper hand, but does this make you more dignified - or less?

KUHN: Last week, a parliamentary committee charged with exploring constitutional amendments, said it would not change the section barring Suu Kyi from the presidency. Aung Thein Linn is a ruling party lawmaker and former brigadier general under the junta. He says he personally supports amending the constitution but he doesn't say exactly which parts.

AUNG THEIN LINN: (Through translator) Some parts of the constitution should be changed in a gradual and democratic way. If some parts of the constitution are weak, they should be changed so that the charter can be more complete.

KUHN: As for Aung San Suu Kyi, two years as a politician appear to have dented her halo just a bit, and some ethnic minority and opposition politicians have become disenchanted with her. Opposition lawmaker U Thein Nyunt left Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, or NLD, four years ago to form his own party. He suggests that Suu Kyi's push for constitutional reform is mainly about furthering her own political ambitions.

U THEIN NYUNT: (Through translator) We followed her leadership for two decades but she's failed to get any results for her country. It's obvious now that she's not considering the people, but only her own power.

KUHN: On Monday, the U.S. State Department urged Myanmar to amend the constitution in order to make next year's elections more free and fair. Myanmar told the U.S. to mind its own business. Thein Nyunt says the government and ruling party will amend the constitution, but only in ways that benefit them. And he says that will leave Suu Kyi with no shot at the presidency.

NYUNT: (Through translator) An Aung San Suu Kyi presidency is the dream of the international community and local activists. It's not everybody's dream. History will continue whether she's elected or not.

KUHN: Even if Suu Kyi can't be president, her party - the NLD - swept parliamentary by-elections two years ago and it could well oust the ruling party in next year's general elections. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.