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Five million signatures

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezAugust 8, 2014

Myanmar's opposition claims 5 million people have signed a petition to change the country's constitution. Analyst Lynn Kuok discusses the implications of this development for Aung San Suu Kyi's presidential bid.

Aung San Suu Kyi UN New York Archivbild
Image: Getty Images

Since Aung San Suu Kyi (main picture) 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 changing the presidential qualifications clause, thus dealing a blow to the opposition leader's aspirations of becoming president next year.

Article 59 blocks anyone whose spouse or children are foreigners from leading the country. The late husband of the 68-year-old Nobel laureate was British, as are her two sons. Demanding change, nearly 5 million people have signed a petition to amend Myanmar's constitution.

Lynn Kuok, a nonresident fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, tells DW that Aung San Suu Kyi still has significant hurdles to cross before she is able to run for president.

DW: What impact is Suu Kyi's petition likely to have on the political scene in Myanmar?

Lynn Kuok: In terms of tangible effects, very little. The petition calls for amending Article 436 of the Myanmar constitution, which sets out the procedure for amending various articles, including the presidential qualifications clause. Article 436 effectively gives the military, which controls 25 percent of seats in parliament, a veto over changes, since it requires more than 75 percent of parliamentary representatives to approve any change.

Lynn Kuok, a nonresident fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies of the Brookings Institution.
Kuok: "Suu Kyi is likely to continue to focus on keeping up domestic pressure for change"Image: privat

While the petition will put some pressure on parliament to reduce the military's role in political affairs, it is unlikely to result in changes to Article 436, at least prior to the 2015 elections.

In essence, change would require the military to vote to further reduce their power in the country, which they are unlikely to do in the near-term—not least because they consider themselves to be guardians of the country. Change would also only come about if more than half of eligible voters support this in a national referendum.

Even if the provision were successfully changed before the 2015 elections, the presidential qualifications clause (Article 59) would still have to be revised in accordance with the new procedure before Aung San Suu Kyi can run for president.

What the petition may do, however, is to embolden Myanmar citizens to increasingly demand greater political change.

How do people in Myanmar view Suu Kyi’s aspirations to become president?

Some observes argue that Aung San Suu Kyi's popularity is waning - she has been criticized for making decisions from the top down and being at the helm of a weak and sclerotic party. She is, however, still immensely popular, and this wide-scale campaign to drum up support for constitutional amendment suggests that the organizational capacity of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), should not be written off.

What message does Suu Kyi want to send to the government with this petition campaign?

Aung San Suu Kyi's frustration at the dragging out of constitutional reform has been evident. In February 2014, a constitutional review committee reported that over 100,000 people were against amending the clause on presidential qualifications, amongst others. This 5-million-person-strong petition is the democracy icon's bid to demonstrate substantial public support for amending Myanmar's constitution.

Are there any political signs that lawmakers are willing to amend the constitution before the elections?

The key player in this regard, given his leverage over the legislature, is parliament speaker Shwe Mann. He initially refused to answer whether he would support constitutional changes to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president, but appeared to change tack in October 2013 when he publicly said he would support changes. Just how hard he will push for changes is questionable. He, too, is eyeing the top job and has publicly said as much.

What other means is Suu Kyi likely to resort to in order to keep on pushing for the constitution to be amended?

Aung San Suu Kyi initially sought to shore up international support with trips to Europe and the United States. But with the international community appearing only willing or able to do so much, her attention has since shifted towards gaining domestic support for amending the constitution. Her efforts are likely to continue to focus on keeping up domestic pressure for change.

Dr. Lynn Kuok is a nonresident fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Kuok researches nationalism and race and religious relations in Southeast Asia, as well as the international politics and security of the Asia-Pacific region.