Back To Top

[Larry Jagan] Will Aung San Suu Kyi be Myanmar’s next president?

Speculation continues to mount, amid stony silence from the leaders of the future government, the National League for Democracy. Since their landslide election victory last November, top party executives, including their charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have been mum. The nomination could be announced during the coming week, according to the party’s spokesman Win Htein, who appears to be one of the few with Aung San Suu Kyi’s ear. “It will be a surprise to everyone,” he added. Only fueling the rumors and conjecture.

But earlier this week, instructions to the NLD MPs not to travel and remain in the capital Naypyidaw, even during any recess periods, led many to surmise that parliament was being readied for a significant development — suspending the clause in the 2008 Constitution that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. Article 59(f) of the military-drafted charter disqualifies anyone with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president — effectively barring Suu Kyi whose two children are British citizens, as was her late husband, Michael Aris.

“It is possible to draft legislation to waive that clause,” said Nyan Win, a senior member of the NLD central committee, and a lawyer himself. “But I don’t think the party will opt for that solution; we need to lobby the military (who have 25 per cent of the seats in parliament in accordance with the constitution) first,” he said, insisting he was speaking in his personal capacity, and not for the NLD.

In the meantime, the party leader has been in a series of negotiations — both direct and indirect — with the military discussing the transition, including the future president. She has now met the military Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing twice; the last meeting was a week before the new Parliament opened. Sources close to the process told The Daily Star that the negotiations were ongoing.

The NLD’s senior patron, Tin Oo told The Daily Star, “We need to find a way to make Aung San Suu Kyi president.” Since the election, party insiders have referred to this as Plan Zero, which certainly seems to mean mapping out a roadmap to make the ‘Lady’ president. “The people clearly want her [Aung San Suu Kyi] to be president,” said Tin Oo. “It is only right and proper, she deserves to be president,” he said emphatically.

Now that the parliamentary session is underway, and the four speakers chosen, the next step is for the new MPs to begin choosing the next president — the upper and lower houses each elect a vice president, and the military bloc selects its candidate. Then the president is chosen from the three candidates at a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD controls both houses of parliament, with 390 seats in the national assembly. In fact, the NLD has an absolute majority in both houses, and with a number of ethnic parties that won seats which will support the new NLD government, they have more than 60 percent of the seats — though they fall short of the 75 percent they would need to change the Constitution and put it to a national referendum.

This means the NLD will nominate two presidential candidates — from the upper and lower houses — and one of these two will be elected the next president. The proposed vice president’s names will be submitted to the presidential scrutinizing committee made up of the four newly elected speakers, before they are approved and put to the vote.

The first real hint of who will be president will come if a motion to waive the Constitution is tabled when the Parliament opens this week. If NLD proceeds with this option, there would have to be an initial vote in Parliament on a proposal on whether legislation should then be drafted, said Ko Ni, a lawyer and Suu Kyi’s legal adviser.

Although discussions between the military and the NLD leader are proceeding, it is far from clear what position the army has on whether Aung San Suu Kyi should be president or not, despite the Constitution. The army commander has been at pains to insist that the military are the “guardians of the Constitution.” He reiterated this position when he met the Lady for the first time in December.

While the military seldom engage in public debate, there are signs that the army is reluctant to see Aung San Suu Kyi as the president — though they accept she will be in control no matter what her position is. One hint of the military’s position appeared in an opinion piece that was published by the army-owned newspaper Myawaddy last Monday. Written under the pen name Sai Wai Lu, it argued that the clause 59(f) should not be amended “for all eternity.”

“This may only be the position of the hardliners in the military,” a retired general told the Daily Star on condition of anonymity. “What is crucial is how Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing feels — and there is no evidence one way or another.” It helps that Aung San Suu Kyi met the former military leader Than Shwe, who seemed to have given her a measure of public approval as a future political leader of the country in December.

The old man though has not given orders for the military to accept the Lady as president, according to several senior military sources. That is firmly in the hands of the current commander-in-chief. “We’re all guessing,” said a former military officer, “but my guess is that she will have to earn the army’s trust before they will accept her as president — for that it will take at least two years,” he surmised.

So is the NLD planning a push to make Aung San Suu Kyi the country’s head of state? At present, the NLD leaders seem to be in a quandary as to which strategy to follow; clearly, they all want Aung San Suu Kyi to be president but she has also had her own reservations. According to party insiders, she feels she has more pressing concerns to attend to, and being a member of the executive as the president or a minister would limit her scope. The president cannot take part in the day-to-day activities of their political party.

“Don’t be anxious. You will know when the time comes,” Aung Su Suu Kyi told reporters at her first press conference of the new Parliament. The party must also “think carefully” about its choice of a candidate and suggested the decision may not come until next month.

Party sources though told The Daily Star that the top leaders are yet to decide on the best presidential option of NLD. In the past week, the odds on the Lady herself assuming the presidency have shortened considerably, but the final outcome is still up in the air, and it will be the military that decides the issue in the end.

By Larry Jagan
(The Daily Star/Asia News Network)

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service news editor for the region. He wrote this for the Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. — Ed.