Politics in Myanmar: Not so fast; Aung San Suu Kyi’s road to the presidency grows longer and more winding

Politics in Myanmar: Not so fast; Aung San Suu Kyi’s road to the presidency grows longer and more winding

Feb 8th 2014 | SINGAPORE | From the print edition

EVER since Myanmar’s army-dominated government began its political reforms in 2011, the question of whether the country’s most popular politician would be able to stand for president next year has hung over the whole process. Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel laureate, among the most famous women in the world, and leader of the country’s biggest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). But all this will count for nothing if Myanmar’s constitution continues to bar Miss Suu Kyi from standing for president. Changing the constitution to allow this has become the single most important test for the country’s reformers. But to judge by recent events, altering the constitution will be harder than many had expected.

At the root of the problem is Clause 59(f). The military junta of the time inserted it into the new constitution in 2008 specifically to stymie the political aspirations of their most feared opponent, then languishing under house arrest. The clause bars from the presidency anyone whose spouse or children are foreign citizens. Miss Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, was a British academic, while her two sons were born in Britain and hold British passports. Miss Suu Kyi was released in late 2010. She won a by-election in April 2012 by a landslide and entered parliament as one of 43 newly elected members from the NLD. Such is her popularity that the NLD is thought likely more or less to sweep the board in the general election in late 2015. The president is then chosen by MPs. Were it not for the peccant clause, freshly elected NLD lawmakers would elevate Miss Suu Kyi to the presidency.

The army’s constitution is shot through with countless other shortcomings. For instance, no place exists in it for a proper political accommodation with minority ethnic groups such as the Karen and the Kachin, who have been fighting the Burman-dominated central government for decades. Almost everyone, from the army’s ruling proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), through to the NLD, has a gripe with one part of the constitution or other.

Until now, it had generally been assumed that even diehard members of the USDP, provided they got enough in return, would accept the need to change 59(f), if only to underscore that Myanmar’s reform process is real. But then on January 31st, after months of deliberation, the 109-member parliamentary committee charged with gathering opinions on constitutional change issued a report purporting to show that most Burmese were against changing the clause. In all, the committee, dominated by the USDP, claimed to have received 28,000 letters, almost all suggesting changes to the constitution. Fully 100,000 signatories, it claimed, opposed change either to Clause 59(f), or to provisions that guarantee the armed forces 25% of the seats in parliament. By contrast, allegedly a mere 592 signatories favoured scrapping the clause.

The NLD hit back immediately. One MP, Zaw Myint Maung, said the claimed results were just an organised signature campaign among USDP members in Yangon, wholly unrepresentative of public opinion. Even if he is right, it suggests that the USDP grassroots is not going to roll over meekly and accept a Suu Kyi presidency.

There will be a fight, in other words, and the president, Thein Sein, may be more sensitive to USDP concerns than people had thought. In early January Mr Thein Sein gave a speech in which he discussed the matter of the presidency. His expression in support of changing the anti-Suu Kyi clause grabbed all the headlines and seemed to confirm his image as a great reformer. But he also added, in a passage that got less attention, that “if the political demands made by the public are larger than the current political system can accommodate, we can all end up in political deadlock.” If that happened, “we could lose all the political freedom we have achieved so far. I would therefore like to urge all of you to handle such a situation with care and wisdom.”

Exercising care and wisdom could mean a lengthy process—longer than the 68-year-old Mrs Suu Kyi may have. The parliamentary committee that came out with its report was charged merely with canvassing opinions. Now a new committee has been formed actually to study all the thousands of proposed changes. That will take time. If and when concrete proposals emerge, there is still the barrier of the 75% majority of MPs needed to approve constitutional change. For now, 80% of parliamentary seats are held by the army or the USDP. Miss Suu Kyi and her supporters have a long trek ahead.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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