Jan 1, 2014

Myanmar - Myanmar takes first step to clear way for Suu Kyi

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The ruling party has formally proposed a Constitutional amendment that currently bars Aung San Suu Kyi from being president of the country.

Myanmar's military-backed ruling party has formally proposed amending a clause in the Constitution that now bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from being president of the country.

Separately, the government announced it was fulfilling a pledge of President Thein Sein to release all remaining political prisoners.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), at the end of a three-day central committee meeting on Monday, adopted a resolution proposing 94 amendments or annulments to the Constitution. These include amending the contentious 59(f) clause that bars anyone from being president if they or anyone in their family has foreign citizenship.

Doing so would clear the way to the presidency for Suu Kyi if her party wins the 2015 General Election, a likely outcome given her personal charisma and political pedigree as daughter of independence hero Aung San.

Suu Kyi was married to a British citizen and their two sons are British citizens, disqualifying her for the presidency under 59(f).

The amendment process has to go through a committee which has received proposals from other political parties and civil society groups as well. Coupled with debates in Parliament, the process will take months. So the amendment of 59(f) is not a certainty.

But that the proposal has come from the military-backed USDP is very significant, analysts said. The clause was seen to have been put into the Constitution by the army - which drew it up and rammed it through a referendum in 2008 - specifically to shut Suu Kyi out of the presidency.

But Suu Kyi has been mending fences with the army and is known to have engineered a tacit alliance with the powerful Speaker of the House Thura Shwe Mann - who is also chair of the USDP.

Mr Shwe Mann is a former top general - but he is also a contender for the presidency in 2015. Analysts say he and Suu Kyi both need each other, so they have to find an accommodation.

"This is Shwe Mann trying to further ingratiate himself with Daw Suu Kyi, so that he will be her choice for president in case she is not eligible," said a Yangon-based analyst who asked not to be named.

But he warned that "it puts Shwe Mann even more on a collision course with the military… which is a bit dangerous". "I don't think (the military) will budge on 59(f) before elections."

Parts of the Constitution including Section 59(f) give an ongoing role to the military in politics, including significant legislative, executive and judicial powers. A quarter of seats in Parliament are reserved for military officers. Amending it to dilute this could antagonise military hardliners distrustful of liberal democracy.

Even the USDP - which was essentially set up by the military - is not completely united on the matter. A USDP lawmaker reportedly told journalists he had received a petition of 50,000 signatures against amending 59(f).

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) affirmed last Saturday that the party would contest the 2015 election. The party is also proposing some 150 amendments to the Constitution, including to 59(f).

"I will say clearly that we must contest the 2015 election. Since from the beginning, the NLD is determined to contest it," party spokesman Nyan Win said.

Meanwhile, President Thein Sein has fulfilled a promise made to the international community earlier this year, to free all remaining political prisoners. Late on Monday, the government said it was issuing a sweeping amnesty.

This meant the country would start with a clean slate, but the issue of old repressive legislation remained, said Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey. "The next step must now be to urgently amend or repeal those laws."

Nirmal Ghosh

The Straits Times

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