By Aung Din
Since Aung San Suu Kyi met on December 4 with former military dictator Than Shwe, who ruled the country from 1992 to 2010 and was the architect of the 2008 constitution, there has been widespread speculation that she could become president of Myanmar soon. These expectations were encouraged by a Facebook post the same day by Nay Shwe Thway Aung, a grandson of Than Shwe who facilitated the meeting, saying that Than Shwe accepted Aung San Suu Kyi as the future leader of the country and that he pledged to support her if she works for the development of the country.
Nay Shwe Thway Aung also posted the image of a 5,000 kyat bank note (just under $4), with the signatures of Than Shwe, President Thein Sein, and Aung San Suu Kyi on Facebook. Than Shwe’s signature is dated October 3, 2009, Thein Sein’s May 12, 2012, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s November 19, 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi also said that she reached an agreement with the former dictator, but without spelling out details.
Many observers interpreted Than Shwe’s gesture as giving a green light to the current military leaders to allow the amendment of the Section 59f of the constitution, which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency because her two sons are foreign citizens. At the same time, Aung Ko, a member of parliament from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, floated the idea that she could become president if Section 59f is temporarily suspended by the approval of the parliament with a simple majority vote. Many believe this might be feasible.
However, even it is true that Than Shwe authorized military leaders to amend Section 59f, the new parliament, which will take office at the end of January 2016, cannot amend the constitution immediately. According to the constitution, the first order of business for the new parliament is electing chairmen of both the Lower and Upper Houses. Next the Union Parliament will divide into three groups to nominate three vice-presidential candidates. Then the Union Parliament as a whole will serve as the electoral college and select one of the three vice-presidential candidates to be president.
As a result, the new parliament must elect the president before it can consider amending the constitution at its first session. Also during the first session, the new parliament will be busy debating the 2016-2017 budget, which will be submitted by the outgoing government, and approving nominations for more than 200 Union level positions, including cabinet ministers, that will be submitted by the president-elect.
Even if the new parliament amends Section 59f with the support of the military in the next session, a national referendum is needed for it to go into effect. Amending this provision will be a long process and take several months, if not years.
In addition, how much influence Than Shwe still has on the military leaders and whether they will agree to make her president is also in question. The offices of both President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing said that they were not informed about the meeting between Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi in advance. Presidential spokesperson and Information Minister Ye Htut said, “Let me tell you frankly, Senior-General Than Shwe is now retired. We have some respect for him as he used to lead us. But he doesn’t have the right to reverse the policies we are taking. If he [tried to], we would not accept it.”
The president’s office director Zaw Htay also told the Myanmar Review Journal that the president was not informed in advance about the meeting and that he never signed the 5,000 kyat bank note because it is against the law. Senior military officials told The Irrawaddy that the commander-in-chief and top military leaders were at Pyin Oo Lwin at the time of the meeting and they were not informed about it in advance either. One unnamed general from the military’s information unit said that Than Shwe is already retired and has nothing to do with the military.
The idea of temporarily suspending Section 59f is also a pie in the sky notion. The 2008 constitution does not allow suspension of its provisions either permanently or temporarily. Adding the provision for “temporary suspension” of the constitution would need to be added before it could be used.
Judging by the negative responses from the offices of the president and the military commander, it is clear that for Aung San Suu Kyi to become president depends solely on the goodwill of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and current military leaders. It will take some time for her to build trust with the military leaders and get their support.
On December 4, before Aung San Suu Kyi went to see Than Shwe in Naypyitaw, Min Aung Hlaing delivered a speech at the Defense Service Academy in Pyin Oo Lwin, at which he spoke about the military’s participation in politics. “Since democracy enhances one’s value, we will have to proceed with respect for the betterment of the country with a reciprocal arrangement.” By “reciprocal arrangement,”, Min Aung Hlaing made clear that as long as Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party acknowledge the role of the military and treat it with respect, the military will respond with the same attitude.
Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently lives in the United States. He serves as a consultant for Moemaka Multimedia, based in San Francisco, and as senior adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a non-profit organization based in Yangon that promotes the right to information and education. See more information about OMI here.