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Asia

Suu Kyi's presidential hopes suffer setback

After a panel in Myanmar refused to change a constitutional clause barring Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, the ICG's Jonathan Prentice says there might still be a way to amend it, but warns time is of the essence.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi became a lawmaker two years ago, the former political prisoner-turned-politician has been campaigning to amend a military-drafted constitution that bars her from the presidency. But on June 13, 26 of the 31 members of a parliamentary committee tasked with recommending changes voted against amending the clause, thus dealing a blow to the opposition leader's aspirations of becoming president next year.

The constitution blocks anyone whose spouse or children are overseas citizens from leading the country. The late husband of the 68-year-old Nobel laureate was British, as are her two sons.

Jonathan Prentice, acting Asia program director at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says in a DW interview that although the parliamentary committee decided not to change the clause, it reportedly recommended changes that would make the constitution easier to amend, thus potentially opening the way to subsequent changes.

DW: When and why was this controversial clause introduced in the constitution?

Jonathan Prentice: The clause (59f) bars anyone whose spouse, child, or child’s spouse has foreign citizenship. It was introduced into the current constitution in 2008, with no similar restrictions in previous Myanmar constitutions. There is a general perception that it was drafted with Aung San Suu Kyi specifically in mind.

Jonathan Prentice is the International Crisis Group's acting Asia Program Director. Copyright: International Crisis Group.

Prentice: "The real issue is whether the military will agree to change the clause, since they have a veto in the legislature"

Why would the parliamentary committee vote against amending the clause given the fact that presidential elections are due next year?

The majority of the Parliamentary Committee members are from the 'establishment' Union Solidarity and Development Party, many of whom are not positive towards Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president.

The decision still needs to be endorsed by the full parliament, but how likely is a change of the clause given the overwhelming majority of the legislative seats the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party hold?

Given the short time remaining and complexities of the constitutional change debate - which is about federalism and the military's role as well as the qualifications of presidential candidates - it has always been questionable whether amendments could be achieved before 2015.

However, the calendar notwithstanding, the real issue is whether the military will agree to change the clause, since they have a veto in the legislature. The views of other representatives, including even the committee, may be less relevant than those of the armed forces.

What does this mean for Aung San Suu Kyi's presidential aspirations in 2015?

While the Committee has reportedly decided not to recommend changes to section 59(f), it has reportedly recommended changes that would make the constitution easier to amend (i.e. section 436 on amendment procedures). That could open the way to subsequent changes to 59(f), but the question then is whether there would be sufficient time to do so before the 2015 elections.

How much progress has Myanmar made over the past few years in terms of political reforms?

There have been remarkable changes that have opened up the country and its politics, put in place a peace process, and led to a significant liberalization. But a country that has been under authoritarian rule for five decades, and with six decades of civil war, will not become a democracy overnight, and there is still a long way to go.

To which extent is the military still in control of the country?

As International Crisis Group argued in its recent report on the subject, the military continues to wield very strong political influence. While it no longer exercises total control, it enjoys constitutionally-enshrined veto powers. There is a long way to go before the military is under civilian control.

What can be done both by the people of Myanmar and by the international community to introduce more democratic changes?

Myanmar military troops arrive in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's western Rakhine state, on October 31, 2012.

While the military in Myanmar no longer exercises total control, it enjoys constitutionally-enshrined veto powers

Arguably, the biggest challenges to Myanmar's democratic transition lie less in the ability of one person - however totemic - to stand for the presidency and more in addressing the societal cleavages wrought by Buddhist-on-Muslim violence, as well as bedding down a sustainable peace process between the center and the country's ethnic peripheries.

These challenges go straight to the question of what type of country - and for whom - Myanmar sees itself as being. Dialogue will be central to this process and will likely need to include all the country's leaders.

Jonathan Prentice is the International Crisis Group's acting Asia Program Director.