News / Asia

Few Signs of Support for Changing Burma's Constitution

Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi talks to journalists during a press briefing in Rangoon, Jan. 2, 2014.
Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi talks to journalists during a press briefing in Rangoon, Jan. 2, 2014.
Gabrielle Paluch
Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi is the country’s most well-known politician, but she faces legal challenges in her widely anticipated bid to run for president in elections next year. A constitutional clause forbids candidates whose spouses or children are foreign citizens. There is pressure to change the measure, but there may not be enough support to make it happen.

Burma’s constitution, ratified by the military-ruled government in 2008 is notoriously difficult to amend. It also contains a clause which prohibits Burmese citizens whose spouse, children, or children's spouses have foreign citizenship from becoming president. Clause 59(f), absent from the country's previous two constitutions, appeared to be directed at preventing a particular citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi, from running for president.
 
Six years later, there is a public push to reverse the clause and have the country’s most well-known politician run for president.
 
Public rallies around the country regularly draw hundreds of Burmese in support of changing the constitution to allow her to run. Ma Khin Myo Thant has been a political activist since 2007. At a rally in the economic capital Rangoon Thursday, she said she believes “Mother Suu” should be president because it's what the people want.
 
She says if Aung San Suu Kyi can be president, it is genuinely the best thing for the country and the next generation.
 
Many regard Aung San Suu Kyi's expected candidacy in the upcoming 2015 presidential election as a concrete measure of progress for a government that is still in the process of demilitarizing. But changing the constitution requires the consent of Burma’s parliament, which is still dominated by the military and its allies.
 
To tackle the task of amending the constitution, Burma's three-year-old legislature established a parliamentary review committee to consider changes to the document. On January 31, the committee submitted a report summarizing the more than 30,000 letters it had received suggesting amendments.
 
Somewhat surprisingly, the report found overwhelming support for leaving clause 59(f) as is, and cited a petition with more than 106,000 signatures opposing the change in the report's footnotes.
 
Opponents of changing 59(f) are unhappy with seeing someone who is seen as being close to the West in a position of power in government.
 
Although the president has expressed support for changing Burma’s constitution, he has not addressed 59(f) in particular.
 
Among lawmakers, there is similar consensus that the constitution should be amended, but which clauses and the timing is still undecided, according to independent political analyst Richard Horsey.
 
He said the review committee's report did not reflect the balance of opinion on the issue because of methodological flaws in how it was carried out.
 
He said though it's not likely 59(f) would be amended in time for Aung San Suu Kyi's candidacy, there were a number of other constitutional changes that are critical to Burma’s reform process, and perhaps a better measure of true reform.

Horsey said a number of clauses reserved too much power for the central government, undermining the peace process in the world's longest-running civil war.
 
"Particularly those related to the division of power and resources and tax revenue between the center and the periphery, and particularly as regards to the ethnic states these are really important issues for peace in the country and for reconciliation," he said.
 
The National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, plans to continue to hold rallies in support of amending 59(f), and allowing the Nobel Peace laureate a chance at becoming president.

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