An iconic politician faces uncertain times
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’ve always thought that I was a politician, I look upon myself as a politician, and not as an icon,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told an audience at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on November 28 during her first visit to Australia.
“I always object to the word icon, because it’s very static, it stands there, sits there, hangs on the wall, and I have to work very, very hard…Let me assure you I am no saint of any kind; this I find very troubling, because politicians are politicians, but I do believe there is such a thing as an honest politician and I aspire to that.”This was not the first time that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has rejected the label of icon. Even so, she is widely regarded and lauded as an icon.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had no doubt about this when he said at their joint press conference on November 28 that “Daw Suu is an icon of democracy”.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been seen as an icon first, only recently as a politician, although she says that she has always been a politician. John F. Kennedy on the other hand was a politician first and foremost who only became an icon when he became President.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Australia was primarily as a politician, though she was everywhere greeted as an icon.
The primary purpose of her visit was to seek support for her campaign to seek changes to the 2008 Constitution, on whose terms however she was elected as representative to the Lower House.
During all her main engagements, she sought to highlight the alleged iniquities of the Constitution, making two related points as poignantly as she could.
First, that the Constitution must be the only one in the world drafted against a particular individual, namely herself, in order to ensure that she could not be nominated as a presidential candidate (because of the foreign nationality of her two sons – sub-clause 59(f) of the Constitution). Second, that the Constitution ensures that only one person, the Commander-in-Chief, could prevent any change to the Constitution through a blocking 25 percent of nominated military representatives in Parliament, any one of whom he could replace at any time.
“No Constitution should be written with only one person in mind,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told her Sydney audience, to rapturous applause. It might be more accurate to say that no sub-clause in a 457-Clause Constitution should be inserted to the deliberate detriment of a single person.
These are nonetheless powerful arguments for change: sub-clause 59(f) because it is a denial of human rights, and the predominance accorded to the military in the Constitution because it is scarcely consistent with recognised norms of popular representation as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Discussion of the many thousands of proposals to amend the Constitution which are starting to pour into the 109 member Parliamentary Review Committee could however be problematic, not least because only seven members of the Committee represent the National League for Democracy. The most that could be expected is that the Committee will present a report detailing amendments on which there is general agreement, though not only the NLD, but other parties as well, notably the ethnic non-Burman parties, will have their own unique proposals which may well not have general support. Military representatives in Parliament have indicated that they too plan to submit amendments. Quite how Parliament hopes to resolve these issues lies in the lap of the Gods.
It is just less than two years to the 2015 general elections. The Committee’s report will not now be completed before the end of January 2014.
A proposal by the NLD, sent by letter, for a preliminary quadripartite meeting among the NLD, the President, the Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) and the Parliament has been adjudged as premature by Presidential Spokesman U Ye Htut, speaking on behalf of the President.
U Ye Htut agreed that the NLD proposed plan was “good and appropriate” but said that proposals from the 57 other political parties should be sought as well. He added that the Review Committee should be respected and matters should not be taken beyond its jurisdiction.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also used her visit to Australia to campaign for the Presidency. She was cautious not to highlight her own disability under the present Constitution, though she claimed that the requirement that candidates should have experience of military affairs automatically excluded all women. This is, with respect, something of an exaggeration, as the relevant clause of the Constitution 59(d) only requires candidates to be “well acquainted” with military and other affairs, which as the daughter of a general should present no great challenge to her. The definitive Burmese version is “vision” (a-myin).
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sought support from Australia, and indeed other countries as well, for amendments to the Constitution.
In this context, the public reaction of Prime Minister Tony Abbott was considerably more restrained than the effusiveness of British Prime Minister David Cameron.
In private, Mr Abbott may well have gone further than in his public statement in which he would only say: “…..I think that the Government of Burma understands our position and certainly we think that there should be free and fair elections in Burma and they should be conducted on the proverbial level-playing field.”
This hardly meets the point which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly made that, however free and fair the election process itself is expected to be on election day (and indeed in the pre-election period when access to the media and freedom to campaign is so important), what is the point of elections to a parliament which is so constrained by entrenched military control? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also used the expression “playing field”, but not in relation to the actual conduct of the elections as to the lack of a fair playing field in the Constitution.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed her willingness to compromise. What we should perhaps consider is whether there are points of principle in Suu Kyi’sposition which are not negotiable.
I believe that there are, and they are the two elements already mentioned: first, her disability to be nominated as a presidential candidate; second, the control which the Commander-in-Chief effectively exercises over any constitutional review.
It is bound to take time to work out with the non-Burman ethnic nationalities the outline of any agreement on greater autonomy, and only when such agreement is reached could the Constitution itself be sensibly amended.
If that is not accomplished by the time of the elections, expected in November 2015, I believe that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could live with this.
But I doubt that she would be willing to continue to accept the concept of a Constitution designed to assure the dominance of one person, the Commander-in-Chief, and the exclusion of another person from the presidency, namely herself.
Would she take this to the point of boycotting the 2015 elections? Though she has been very careful not to push herself and the NLD out on a limb, she is likely to take an intractable line on these two issues. Will the Tatmadaw call her bluff? Indeed, does the Tatmadaw have a deal up itssleeves which could resolve the issue and allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be President while the Tatmadaw retains its constitutional dominance?
In any case, is amendment of the Constitution such a “burning issue” among the population at large as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi claimed it to be in her joint press conference with Mr Abbott?
As Thai Prime Minister YingluckShinawatrais discovering in Bangkok, politics in Southeast Asia can be really very rough indeed. Myanmar is likely to be no exception.
The writer is a former British ambassador to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, is the chairman of Network Myanmar