Burma’s Next President

1 February 2014

Burma’s Next President

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of Burmese democracy, declared last June that she would run for president in the 2015 election. If she ran, she would surely win: she is to Burma what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa. However, as things now stand she is not legally allowed to run for president – and maybe she should see that as an opportunity to reconsider whether becoming president is the best use of her talents.

Burma is part-way through a transition from a fifty-year military dictatorship to democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi is the unquestioned leader of the democratic movement. Unless the military rig or cancel next year’s election, her National League for Democracy (NLD) will certainly win a large majority in parliament in 2015. But she has no executive experience of any kind.

She doesn’t really have experience even in leading a political party, although she was a co- founder of the NLD in 1988 and has always been its leader. She was under house arrest most of the time, and most of the party’s other leaders were in jail, so she was never challenged by rivals and never had to administer anything.

Despite that she may be a wonderful natural leader, but such people are very rare. She is much more likely to be, like Mandela, an inspiring symbol of democracy with quite limited administrative skills. If so, she should rethink her position.

The law that bans her from the presidency is clause 59F of the constitution that was written by the military in 2008, which states that the spouse and children of a prospective president cannot owe their “allegiance to a foreign power.” It applies to her because her two sons with her late husband, the British academic Michael Aris, have British citizenship.

This is not just an unfortunate coincidence: the law was written that way to ensure that she could never become president. She presumably thought she had a deal to get rid of that clause when she agreed with the current president, ex-general Thein Sein, to run for parliament under the military-drafted constitution in late 2011.

Under that deal, the NLD ran candidates in 45 by-elections in April, 2012, and won 43 of them. The NLD members took up their seats in parliament, and the world concluded that the democratic transition in Burma was real. So the sanctions that many Western countries maintained against the military regime were relaxed, and investments began pouring into the moribund Burmese economy.

But clause 59F is still in the constitution. A parliamentary review committee with a majority of members from the generals’ tame political party reported last week that it had received 30,000 submissions for changes, including more than 5,000 on the “Suu Kyi clause.”

But it just listed all the submissions, making no recommendations about them – except to say that changes not requiring a referendum or that help to consolidate peace with Burma’s many armed ethnic minorities should be given priority. Changing clause 59F would require a referendum and it’s obviously not about rebel ethnic groups. It look like Suu Kyi has been had..

When Thein Sein was asked about the clause last week, he replied: “I would not want restrictions being imposed on the right of any citizen to become the leader of the country. At the same time, we will need to have all necessary measures in place in order to defend our national interests and sovereignty.” “Sovereignty”, of course, is code for not letting anyone with “foreign” ties near the presidency.

Aung San Suu Kyi has devoted half her adult life to bringing democracy to Burma, at great personal cost, and she clearly sees winning the presidency as the final validation of her long struggle. But before she launches a battle over clause 59F that will use up all the political oxygen for the next year, she should ask herself if the presidency is really where she can be most useful.

Is there nobody in her party, perhaps somebody a bit younger (she is 68), who has the right skills for the demanding job of executive president at a time of huge political and economic transformation? Maybe she should consider the example of Sonia Gandhi, the widow of India’s assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who led the Congress Party to a resounding election victory in 2004.

Sonia Gandhi could have become prime minister if she wanted, but she had a “foreign” problem too: she is an Indian citizen, but she was born and brought up Italian. So she chose economist Manmohan Singh to be prime minister, a job he has done with reasonable efficiency for the past ten years, while she remained Congress Party leader and kept it united behind him.

The circumstances are not identical, but Burma needs a president who (a) has the right skills for the job, and (b) has a united party behind him or her. Maybe Aung San Suu Kyi’s most useful role would be as party leader and moral authority, while somebody else gets down in the dirt and makes the day-to-day decisions that will eat away the popularity of even the most respected leader in the end.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 10. (“She doesn’t…anything”; “Under…economy”; and “When…presidency”)