Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Faces Uncertainty in November Polls

On Nov. 8, as Myanmar approaches what analysts are calling the most important polls since the country was taken over by a military coup in 1962, speculation is rising over the future role of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy.

Although for the international community the Nobel Peace Laureate, now 70, has raised hope for a convincing political role, the ground reality remains grim. Expectations of being an executive president are diminishing. Her position in post-poll Myanmar is more likely at most to be vice president and speaker of the lower house of parliament or possibly foreign minister.

“Whatever the speculation possessed by the Myanmar people or the international community, Suu Kyi cannot be president given the present political structure in Myanmar,” Khin Maung Win, a Yangon-based political commentator, told Asia Sentinel. “I believe both Suu Kyi and the NLD supporters have realized that until there is a miracle, there is no hope for her to replace Thein Sein immediately.”

The question is whether Suu Kyi retains the same electoral cachet that she brought to the party in 2010. She had remained by far the most popular figure in Burma during the 15 years of her house arrest, during which she refused to leave even for her husband’s death. Her stand against the military made her loved and trusted by all.

But the scenario has changed as, once elected to the parliament, she has become part of the regime at Naypyidaw, the new capital the generals built north of Rangoon. She is regarded as having hesitated to take on some of Myanmar’s most pressing issues. She has instead called for the rule of law, a law that too often is laid down by the generals. She has been reluctant to speak out about abuses by the army against rebels in Kachin state, saying both sides were responsible.

One of her most surprising and disheartening performances, as chairwoman of a panel investigating land disputes between poor farmers and the Letpadaung Copper Mine, which drew hundreds of protesters and inspired police beatings, her report ended up siding with the company.

She has remained silent as thousands of Rohingya Muslim families in Arakan province have undergone nothing less than a pogrom by the majority Buddhists. The NLD hasn’t even provided space for Muslim leaders and workers for the upcoming polls. To many, she has appeared to be too close to the ruling military-dominated government.

Suu Kyi herself, in an interview with Indian media, acknowledged that she wouldn’t be able to win the presidency although she expressed optimism about the performance of the National League for Democracy. If the party receives the kind of mandate it won in 1988, when the generals miscalculated and allowed polls that gave it an estimated 90 percent of the votes, she believes she could lead the next government whether or not she is president.

However, the formal trappings of power are something else. Kin Maung Win, who is associated with the Democratic Voice of Burma, a media organization run by Burmese expatriates, said that even with overwhelming success for NLD candidates in the general election, the constitution effectively crushes the party’s chances.

The 2008 charter reserves 25 percent of both houses of the parliament and Legislative Assemblies in seven provinces for military candidates. At least one vice-presidential chair is reserved for the military. Any amendment to the constitution needs to be supported by more than 75 percent of the parliament, which appears impossible unless members of the military were to rebel and go over to the opposition, which is probably unthinkable.

Myanmar’s lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives, the Pyithu Hluttaw, is composed of 440 seats, of which 110 are appointed by the military, the Tatmadaw. The House of Nationalities or Amyotha Hluttaw has 224 seats, of which 56 military personnel are to be appointed by the Myanmar Armed Forces, the Tatmadaw. Thus the 32 million-plus electorate will exercise their franchise for only 498 (330 +168) seats with the Tatmadaw filling up to 166, according to Win, who said more than 80 registered political parties including the ruling Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP), NLD and various ethnic national parties are waiting to file their candidates in the forthcoming polls.

Although democratic reforms were implemented in Myanmar three years ago, the 2008 constitution bars a Myanmarese with a foreign spouse from becoming President. Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, was a British citizen. Both of her sons also possess British citizenship. The particular provision was obviously introduced to prevent her attaining the presidency.

Win confirmed rising speculation that Thein Sein may run for another presidential term. As a former general himself, Thein Sein has the advantage of being preferred by the Tatmadaw-appointed lawmakers.

“President Thein Sein may find a short cut here, as he needs not to be elected from any constituency in the forthcoming polls. According to the Myanmar constitution, if Thein Sein is supported by the 25 percent Army representatives and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, he has a better chance to win, the DVB activist said.

The junta refused to recognize the 1990 general election, in which the NLD won a landslide victory and refused to hand over power. The former head of the regime, Senior General Than Shwe, who is said to have detested Suu Kyi, ordered a brutal crackdown over NLD activists, in which unknown numbers were gunned down in the street. Suu Kyi was to remain under house arrest for 15 of the 21 subsequent years she spent in Yangon. After she was released in 2010, her party wasn’t allowed to participate in the polls, which were swept by the military-backed Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

With the arrival of Thein Sein in place of Than Shwe, the reform process started gaining momentum. The press has been partly freed, although arrests continue if reporters get too aggressive. As a demonstration of its continuing attraction, the NLD participated in 2012 Parliamentary by-elections in which it won 43 seats, including that of Suu Kyi, out of 45 contested constituencies.

The question is whether Suu Kyi retains the same electoral cachet that she brought to the party in 2010. She had remained the most popular figure in Burma during the 15 years of her house arrest, during which she refused to leave even for her husband’s death. Her stand against the military made her beloved and trusted by all. But the scenario has changed as she has become part of the regime at Naypyidaw, the new capital the generals built north of Rangoon. She has remained silent as thousands of Rohingya Muslim families in Arakan province have undergone nothing less than a pogrom by the majority Buddhists. The NLD hasn’t even provided space for Muslim leaders and workers for the upcoming polls.