A rocky road ahead for Myanmar's Constitution

opinion January 25, 2014 00:00

By Nirmal Ghosh
The Straits Time

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Parliament is set to debate more than 2,500 proposed changes - including whether Suu Kyi can be the next president

The process of amending Myanmar’s military-drafted Constitution begins at the end of this month, with all eyes on article 59f which, if changed, could pave the way for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to be president after the late 2015 election.
But 59f is only one of many key clauses at stake, several of which are potential landmines because they directly affect the role of the military.
They will also affect the no less critical place of ethnic minorities, and the balance of power and sharing of resources between them and the majority Burmans who comprise about 70 per cent of the population of a diverse country with 135 officially recognised ethnic groups.
Over 2,500 amendment proposals will be submitted to the speaker of parliament at the end of this month. But that is only first formal step. The length of the process of scrutiny, prioritisation and debate, and the contentious issues involved, means many amendments might not even be legislated by the time the 2015 election comes around.
The Constitution was rammed through a national referendum by the then military regime in 2008. Among other things it put the military in charge of three security ministries – defence, border affairs and home affairs – and ensured 25 per cent of parliament seats for military personnel appointed by the commander in chief.
As for article 59f, the proposed amendment is to remove part, but not all of the conditions that would prevent Suu Kyi from becoming president.
Myanmar has had two previous Constitutions, in 1947 and 1974. In 1988, the army suspended the Constitution, so the country had no charter for two decades until 2008.
Previous Constitutions specified that the president must be a citizen who was either born in the country, or both of whose parents were.
The 2008 Constitution specified that having a spouse or children and their spouses, who were citizens of a foreign country, would disqualify a person from the presidency. Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British academic, and their two sons are British citizens.
The suggested new language is to take out the part about the spouses. This would still leave Suu Kyi with the impediment that her two sons are foreign nationals – both living in the West – who would have to change to Myanmar nationality to enable her to become president.
Whether they would change their citizenships is uncertain. Indeed, she is reportedly estranged from her elder son. “They are adults and have the right to make their own decision for their own good,” Suu Kyi has said.
Says Yangon-based Richard Horsey, an independent analyst and former top United Nations official in Myanmar: “It puts the ball back in her court. On the one hand, she can argue that it is unfair. On the other hand, you can imagine a lot of Myanmar nationalists saying if someone is too linked to a foreign country and the children are foreign citizens, where does one draw the line.”
The issue is not unique to Myanmar. In India, though Italian-born Sonia Gandhi is an Indian citizen, to appease nationalists she has had to stay in the background as head of the Congress Party, rather than in the forefront as prime minister.
In Peru, ethnic Japanese Alberto Fujimori was president from 1990 to 2000. His strong leadership veered into authoritarianism; accused of human rights violations and corruption, he fled – to Japan.
He was extradited in 2007 and is now in jail.
In the United States, the Constitution says the president should be a “natural born” US citizen. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who might run for president in 2016, was born in Austria and wants that part of the Constitution changed.
Given Suu Kyi’s stature, especially in the West, the issue of 59f occupies centre stage. But other amendments that address core issues may be more critical.
Says Horsey: “Some of the economic and political reform touches core interests of the army, taking away monopolies and so forth. They have been comfortable because they have ultimate guarantees, so if it goes really wrong, they can step in.”
Another Yangon-based analyst who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his position close to senior government figures, told the Straits Times over the phone: “There is at least unanimity that this Constitution needs amendment. Despite the problems, we may emerge as a mature nation debating on these difficult issues without resorting to violence.
“But the process is full of uncertainties. The military feels they introduced the Constitution and they have a sense of entitlement. It seems to a lot of people that the military is not ready to give up its prerogatives; that can only happen after 2015.”

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