Political protest is always electric in Burma: three years after the transition to democracy of a sort, police still swoop on even tiny demonstrations. So when 70 protesters in formal white shirts and dark longyi (sarongs) marched past Rangoon City Hall on Friday, carrying banners demanding changes to the constitution, it was significant that the authorities left them in peace.
Revision to the controversial constitution – strongly backed by David Cameron at a joint press conference with Aung San Suu Kyi in October – is today the hottest of topics.
One day earlier, President Thein Sein had thrown his weight behind revision, and in so doing he brought Aung San Suu Kyi potentially a big step closer to becoming his successor in 2016. In a radio broadcast to the nation, he said: “A healthy constitution must be amended from time to time to address the national, economic and social needs of our society. I would not want restrictions imposed on the right of any citizen to become the leader of the country.” He added: “At the same time, we will need to have all necessary measures in place in order to defend our national interests and sovereignty.”
Aung San Suu Kyi is both the spearhead of constitutional change and its most likely beneficiary. The Nobel Peace Prize winner and former activist, who spent more than 15 years in detention, has declared her ambition to be President, but the existing constitution bans anyone from the job whose spouse and/or children owe allegiance to a foreign power. The clause is believed to have been inserted specifically to prevent her getting the top job. Ms Suu Kyi’s two sons with her late husband Michael Aris, Alexander and Kim, were born in Britain and hold British citizenship.
The President’s emollient words follow the announcement last week by Ms Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), that it will contest the general election scheduled for 2015 whether or not the constitution is amended. The party boycotted the general election of 2010, held just before Ms Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, because it believed the military regime then in power would not run it fairly. In the event, in a flawed poll, the army’s surrogate party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won a huge majority.
The USDP has proposed its own list of amendments to the constitution. These include removing the need for the spouse of a candidate to be Burmese, but retaining the same requirement for children. Ms Suu Kyi, who is recovering from surgery on her foot, commented that this requirement “does not fit with democratic values” and that the nationality of adult children was irrelevant. “They are adults,” she said. “Parents don’t have responsibility for them.”
Ms Suu Kyi has used her frequent foreign trips over the past year to bang the drum for constitutional reform. The existing document not only bars her from the presidency but enshrines the power of the Commander-in-Chief of the army to block any change to it: approval by 75 per cent of MPs is needed to change the text, and 25 per cent of seats are occupied by serving soldiers. At their joint press conference in London in October, David Cameron lent strong backing to her campaign. “The constitution has to be changed,” he said, “and we will do everything we can to build the international pressure to send the clearest possible message to the Burmese government that these changes must be made.”
The constitution was drawn up under the close supervision of the army and endorsed in a suspect referendum held in 2008 immediately after the devastating Cyclone Nargis that killed more than 130,000 people. It was widely seen as a way for the army to retain real control of the political process long after the transition to democracy, which explains why the clamour to change it has become so loud.
And given Ms Suu Kyi’s overwhelming popularity, her right to stand for President may well be the most effective issue over which to browbeat parliament and the army into giving way. As President Thein Sein said in his Thursday address – in what sounded like a warning to the ruling USDP, to which he belongs: “In trying to solve the ongoing political differences, we must all choose to do the right things in order not to fall into political impasse.”
Ms Suu Kyi has alienated many of her former supporters in the West by failing to condemn convincingly attacks by Buddhists on the Muslim minority, but she and her party remain overwhelmingly popular in areas dominated by the majority Burman ethnic group. In by-elections in 2012, the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested.
President Thein Sein has transformed Burma’s political and economic position since coming out as a reformer in August 2011, a few months after taking office. Those reforms paved the way for Burma to re-assume a respected position in the region, and in December it successfully staged the South -east Asian Games, for the first time in 44 years. But it is doubtful whether these achievements have given the charisma-free ex-general a stature to rival Ms Suu Kyi’s, and indeed he has yet to declare whether or not he wants a second term.