Inside Burma - part 3: ‘Power belongs to the people but the army wants to hang on,’ says adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi

The former opposition leader wants to run for the presidency, but the constitution prevents her
  • @peterpopham

There is no doubt that she wants to run, and there is also little doubt that it would be her last chance: though still in excellent health, next year she will turn 70. For at least a year she has made no bones about her ambition. Some regard her frankness on this question as either evidence of an arrogant sense of entitlement or that she still doesn’t really get politics. As in the case of Boris Johnson and the job of British prime minister, people say, it would be much more canny of her to hold her tongue and hedge her bets.

But the situations are not comparable because there is nothing in Britain’s constitution to say that a blond philanderer with the middle name De Pfeffel cannot become PM. Yet Burma’s constitution, ratified in a referendum in 2008, says very specifically that a person with a spouse or children of foreign nationality is barred from the job of Burmese president. There is no reason to doubt the clause was inserted to throw another obstacle, perhaps the biggest of all, in Aung San Suu Kyi’s way.

To have a hope of becoming president, the former opposition leader – who spent most of the last two decades in some form of detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to military-ruled Burma – must get the constitution changed. That is why she is now so bold and frank about her presidential ambitions: both her friends and her enemies need to be in no doubt that she wants the top job. That clause is by no means the only thing standing between her and political fulfilment, however.

In by-elections held on 1 April 2012, Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 of the 44 seats it contested. This dramatic proof of her party’s continuing popularity is seen by some as a sign that they could also win a landslide at the general election of 2015. But a tall, barrel-chested lawyer who has become Ms Suu Kyi’s top adviser on such matters urges caution.  

I met U Ko Ni in his cramped and busy office in the heart of downtown Rangoon. A civil lawyer specialising in commercial disputes since 1990, he has more recently become a one-man think-tank on the coming election and the fraught issue of constitutional change.

However popular the NLD, he points out, it will not be easy for the party to win a majority in parliament. “One-quarter of all seats are reserved for the military. So if the NLD gets a majority of the remaining seats – say 51 per cent – it still won’t be enough to rule.”

The last general election, from which the NLD abstained, was won by the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, by a landslide. All sorts of ruses were used to ensure a victory – forcing civil servants to vote in advance, for example – but that does not automatically mean the party will fare badly if it has to abide by the rules.

“They will win easily in the insurgency areas on the border,” he says. “They have power and lots of money and should win at least 15 per cent nationwide. Then the parties representing ethnic minorities should get another 30 per cent, which means the NLD will struggle to get more than 40 per cent.” And that is 40 per cent of 75 per cent of seats – nowhere near a working majority.

U Ko Ni’s sober breakdown has been like a bucket of cold water for a party which, like the Congress in India, tends to believe too readily in its own pre-eminence. The party has often been criticised for being closed to new blood and dominated by its founding gerontocrats, but one Western diplomat who knows Ms Suu Kyi well said that if the party won power, “I think she would pick people from outside for particular jobs; they wouldn’t have to be party members. She’s very practical, and not sentimental at all.”

In recognition of her need for allies, she recently reached agreement with the leaders of 88 Generation, the activists behind the democracy protests of 1988 and 2007, on constitutional change, and she has started wooing ethnic parties. Bringing outsiders like U Ko Ni into her inner circle is another sign of her growing openness to advice.

But the constitution remains a major problem, and not only on account of Article 59(f) [which prevents her from becoming president because of the nationality of her former husband and sons]. “The military ruled this country illegally for 50 years,” says U Ko Ni, “and now they want to rule legally for the rest of their lives. State power belongs to the people, but the military want to hold on to it.”

And the constitution, fruit of the National Convention set up by Than Shwe in 1993, is what enables them to do so. Not only does it reserve one-quarter of seats for the military, it also puts the National Defence and Security Council at the apex of government, and gives the military a controlling say in key ministries. Then finally it makes the constitution almost impossible to change, requiring 75 per cent of MPs and 51 per cent of the population to vote for change before it can happen. U Ko Ni says that, in terms of rigidity, Burma’s constitution is in a league of its own.

“By legal ways,” he says, “we cannot change the constitution, so we must change it by political ways.” Concretely that means organising mass demonstrations to denounce the charter; while Ms Suu Kyi, as leader of the opposition in parliament, tries to cajole and charm and browbeat the real powers in the country, including the head of the armed forces and the President, into changing it by fiat.

It is a tough call, even when you have an address book like Ms Suu Kyi’s. Foreign friends like David Cameron have been adding their voices to her demand for constitutional change. But it is the stubborn old men who rule Burma who have to be persuaded.