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Time running out for Myanmar democracy

An undemocratic constitution that disqualifies Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president must be changed before the 2015 election

Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) on Saturday announced it would contest the 2015 election, but this doesn't mean it accepts that the vote will be fair. Amending the military-drafted constitution ahead of the election remains a necessity if Myanmar is to become a democracy that reflects the will of all its citizens.

The 2008 Constitution was drawn up under the previous military regime to ensure its continuing influence in government. The charter is undemocratic because it secures 25 per cent of seats in parliament for the military and disqualifies opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

Article 59 of the Constitution says anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals cannot become president or vice president. Suu Kyi was married to the late British scholar Michael Aris, and her two sons carry British passports.

Suu Kyi had previously hinted that the opposition would boycott the next general election unless the Constitution was made equitable. Her NLD refused to contest the 2010 poll, calling it undemocratic. The Constitution and election law strongly favoured the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2010, and enabled former four-star general Thein Sein to take the helm of the country.

After changes to election rules, the NLD contested by-elections in 2012, sweeping 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats it contested. Suu Kyi won one of those seats and has since taken a prominent role in parliamentary affairs. Her personal popularity remains sky-high, and her NLD is expected to perform well in the next election - but only if the rules of the game are changed to create a more level playing field. If so, her party might have the opportunity to propose Suu Kyi as its candidate for the country's next president. The president is chosen by parliament rather than by national election, so a candidate must gain the support of MPs to be successful.

However, changes to the Constitution must go further than merely enabling Suu Kyi to take the top job. The charter is riddled with vague language and downright undemocratic points.

The NLD launched a campaign for charter change in October. It followed the July launch of a parliamentary Constitution Review Committee to recommend changes to the Constitution before the 2015 elections.

The committee is collecting suggestions from individuals, organisations and political parties, and will submit them to parliament by the end of January. The process faces challenges and obstacles from conservative elements desperate to maintain the status quo.

Amending the Constitution requires the consent of more than 75 per cent of lawmakers, then more than 50 per cent of the vote in a national referendum. With only a year left before election preparations begin, time is fast running out for Myanmar's democratic reform.


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