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Ruling party eyes bill that could make Suu Kyi president

The military still controls a quarter of the seats in Myanmar's parliament.

By Motokazu Matsui
February 6, 2016

YANGON -- Myanmar's ruling party plans to submit a new bill that could allow its leader Aung San Suu Kyi to become president, multiple party members told The Nikkei, in a move that will surely draw fire from the military and may even grind the country's power transition to a halt.

The bill aims to temporarily suspend a clause in the constitution that bans individuals with foreign family members from becoming president. Suu Kyi, who leads the National League for Democracy, has two sons with British citizenship.

Changing the constitution requires a more than three-quarters vote in parliament, among other tough conditions. Opposition by military-appointed lawmakers thwarted an amendment submitted last June. But the NLD now holds a majority of seats in both houses after a crushing victory in last year's election. It has the numbers to pass the new bill, which would result in a new law and technically not alter the constitution.

Some are concerned over whether the legislative bill, designed to circumvent formally pre-defined channels for constitutional amendment, is even constitutional. But the constitutional clause will be suspended if the new bill passes, according to Nyan Win, a lawyer and member of the NLD's Central Executive Committee. A national vote could be held afterwards as well.

A legal advisory panel consisting of experts and members of the lower house was launched Friday. It will be led by Shwe Mann, the former head of the military-tied Union Solidarity and Development Party and a Suu Kyi confidante. Many observers believe Shwe Mann, who is supportive of constitutional change, will work with the panel and help legitimize the proposed bill.

But a military backlash seems unavoidable. The current constitution allots a quarter of parliamentary seats to the military, effectively giving it veto power. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly stated that the military will safeguard the constitution. And a military-run newspaper also argued in a Monday editorial that the clause on presidential eligibility should never be changed.

Suu Kyi has worked closely with the military to ensure a smooth transition of power, such as meeting with former junta leader Than Shwe in December after the elections. The NLD may not submit the bill after all, since pushing the bill through parliament in spite of military opposition could trigger a coup.

If the NLD fails to suspend the clause banning Suu Kyi from the presidency, it will appoint another individual to the post. "I will be above the president," Suu Kyi has said, revealing plans to rule from outside the government. Some in the military are concerned this could place too much of the NLD's power outside traditional controls. "It would be better to allow Suu Kyi to become president and curb her power through the parliament and cabinet," a diplomatic source said.

Any deliberation on the new bill, which could undermine the constitution, is bound to take time. The ruling party could choose someone close to Suu Kyi to fill the spot before current President Thein Sein leaves office at the end of March, and prepare for long-term negotiations with the military.

The goal is to make Suu Kyi president "within the year," NLD senior official Tin Oo told foreign media.

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