Rumours abound of progress in talks with the military, but ‘the Lady’ herself appears reluctant to take the role
Speculation is mounting amid stony silence from the leaders of the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) government. Since their landslide election victory last November, top party executives, including their charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have remained mum. The nomination could be announced during the coming week, according to the party’s spokesman Win Htein, who appears to be one of the few close to Aung San Suu Kyi. “It will be a surprise to everyone,” he added – which only fuelled the rumours and conjecture.
But earlier this week, instructions to the NLD MPs not to travel beyond the capital Nay Pyi Taw, even during recess periods, led many to surmise that Parliament was being readied for a significant development – the suspending of the clause in the 2008 constitution that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. Article 59(f) of the military-drafted charter disqualifies anyone with a foreign spouse or children from taking the top post – effectively barring Suu Kyi, whose two children are British citizens, as was her late husband, Michael Aris.
Constitutional ban could be waived
“It is possible to draft legislation to waive that clause,” said Nyan Win, a senior member of the NLD central committee, and a lawyer himself. “But I don’t think the party will opt for that solution; we need to lobby the military [who have a constitutionally guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats in parliament] first,” he said, insisting he was speaking independently, and not for the NLD.
In the meantime, the party leader has been negotiating – both directly and indirectly – with the military on the transition as well as the future president. She has now met the military Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing twice since November’s election; their last meeting was a week before the new parliament opened. Sources close to the process told the Daily Star that the negotiations were ongoing.
The NLD’s senior patron, Tin Oo, told the Daily Star, “We need to find a way to make Aung San Suu Kyi president.” Since the election, party insiders have referred to this as Plan Zero, which certainly seems to mean drawing up a road map to make “The Lady” president. “The people clearly want her [Suu Kyi] to be president,” said Tin Oo, who is also a former junta general. “It is only right and proper, she deserves to be president,” he said emphatically.
Now that the parliamentary session is underway, and the four speakers chosen, the next step is for the new MPs to begin choosing the next president. To do this, the upper and lower houses and the military bloc each elect a candidate. Then the president is chosen from the three candidates at a joint sitting of both houses of parliament.
Suu Kyi’s NLD controls both houses of parliament, with 390 seats in the national assembly. The NLD has an absolute majority in both houses, and support from the ethnic parties in parliament means they have more than 60 per cent of the seats – though the military bloc of MPs an effective veto on any change to the constitution.
This means the NLD will nominate two presidential candidates – from the upper and lower houses – and one of these two will be elected the next president. The proposed vice president’s names will be submitted to the presidential scrutinising committee made up of the four newly elected speakers, before they are approved and put to the vote.
The first real hint of who will be president will come if a motion to waive the constitution is tabled this week in parliament. If the NLD proceeds with this option, there would have to be an initial vote in parliament on a proposal on whether legislation should then be drafted, said Ko Ni, a lawyer and Suu Kyi’s legal adviser.
Signs of split in military
Although discussions between the military and the NLD leader are proceeding, the army’s position on whether Suu Kyi should become president is far from clear. The army commander has been at pains to insist that the military are the “guardians of the Constitution”. He reiterated this position when he met Suu Kyi for the first time in December.
While the military seldom engage in public debate, there are signs that the army is reluctant to see Suu Kyi as the president – though they accept she will be in control no matter what her position. One hint of the military’s position came in an opinion piece published by the army-owned Myawaddy newspaper last week. Written under the pen-name Sai Wai Lu, it argued that the clause 59(f) should not be amended “for all eternity”.
“This may only be the position of the hardliners in the military,” a retired general told the Daily Star on condition of anonymity. “What is crucial is how Senior General Min Aung Hlaing feels – and there is no evidence one way or another.” It helps that Suu Kyi met the former junta leader Than Shwe, who seemed to have given her a measure of public approval as a future political leader of the country in December.
But the old man has not given orders for the military to accept her as president, according to several senior military sources. That decision is firmly in the hands of the current commander-in-chief. “We’re all guessing,” said a former military officer, “but my guess is that she will have to earn the army’s trust before they will accept her as president – for that it will take at least two years.”
So is the NLD planning a push to make Suu Kyi the country’s head of state?
The dilemma for NLD leaders
At present, NLD leaders seem to be in a quandary as to which strategy to follow; clearly, they all want Suu Kyi to be president but she has also had her own reservations. According to party insiders, she feels she has more pressing concerns to attend to, and being the president or a minister would limit her scope. The president cannot take part in the day-to-day activities of his/her political party.
“Don’t be anxious. You will know when the time comes,” Suu Kyi told reporters at her first press conference during the new parliament. The party must also “think carefully” about its choice of a candidate, and Suu Kyi suggested the decision may not come until next month.
Party sources though told the Daily Star that the top leaders are yet to decide on the best presidential option of NLD. In the past week, the odds on the Lady herself assuming the presidency have shortened considerably, but the final outcome is still up in the air, and it will be the military that decides the issue in the end.
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service news editor for the region.