Suu Kyi: “I will be above the president” – Nikkei Asian Review


Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to media at Yangon villa in Nov. 5 2015 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to media at Yangon villa in Nov. 5 2015 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

YANGON — Aung San Suu Kyi is confident that her National League for Democracy can win her country’s election on Sunday, an outcome that would, she hopes, allow her to run a government from behind the scenes despite a constitutional ban on her becoming president.

“I will be above the president,” Suu Kyi said, speaking to around 200 journalists gathered on the lawn of her lakeside Yangon villa. The opposition leader, a member of parliament representing the Kawhmu constituency on the outskirts of Myanmar’s biggest city, was discussing possible scenarios should the NLD win enough seats to lead a government.

In the event of an NLD win, Suu Kyi said she will nominate a presidential candidate — possibly from within the party — with the nominee answerable to her should he or she be elected president early next year by Myanmar’s incoming parliament.

“I’ll run the government,” she said, “and we will have a president who will work in accordance with the policies of the NLD.”

Such an arrangement would likely be a violation of Myanmar’s constitution, which stipulates that the president should take precedence over all other persons in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi, however, also suggested compromise with the current government and with the military. “We do want a government of national reconciliation,” she said.

Zaw Htay, an official at the office of President Thein Sein, said Suu Kyi’s plans would, if implemented, contravene the constitution.

“The president is the supreme head of the country, of the people,” Zaw Htay told the Nikkei Asian Review.

“If there is an emergency situation, the president is supposed to convene the National Defense and Security Council,” Zaw Htay added, discussing a body made up of the president, vice president, army chief and other senior officials that assumes executive and legislative powers in the event of an emergency.

“If the president has to ask a party leader, then this is a problem,” Zaw Htay said, hinting at what might be a line-in-the-sand issue for Myanmar’s military elites, who have long resisted ceding control of the country to civilians. Even after the election, the army will hold 25% of the parliamentary seats and can veto constitutional changes — such as amendments that would allow Suu Kyi to become president.

However, Suu Kyi pushed back against these concerns, telling the Nikkei Asian Review that current President Thein Sein is already violating Myanmar’s constitution by championing the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

“He is campaigning for a political party, and that is not allowed under the constitution,” Suu Kyi said.

As president, Thein Sein is prohibited from party activities but has appeared in various locations across Myanmar in recent weeks, surrounded by USDP supporters clad in the party’s green and white attire, and sometimes accompanied by the head of Myanmar’s army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Min Aung Hlaing, himself a possible presidential nominee, has said several times that people should vote for candidates who are free from foreign influence. This is presumably a reference to Suu Kyi, who was married to a British academic and has hired several foreign advisers.

Suu Kyi has come under pressure from other quarters, including from some who in the past would have been regarded as sympathetic to her struggle against Myanmar’s former military junta.

Buddhist monks have pegged her as a Muslim sympathizer, while Western human rights groups have said Suu Kyi has ignored the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims, particularly the roughly 1 million Rohingya, who are not regarded as a distinct ethnic group by Myanmar’s government and are subject to harsh discrimination.

Asked today about allegations of “genocide” against the beleaguered Rohingya, Suu Kyi said “it is important not to exaggerate the problems in the country,” later adding that her party has no plans to amend a 1982 military junta law that effectively denies citizenship to the Rohingya.

“I will promise everyone who is living in this country protection in accordance with the law and in accordance with the norms of human rights,” Suu Kyi said.

A Yale University investigation, reported by al-Jazeera, intimated that there are reasons to believe genocide is being carried out against the Rohingya.

The plight of the Rohingya has proven a thorny issue for Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights campaigner before her release from house arrest in 2010, when she returned to full-time politics.

Buddhist hard-liners have criticized the NLD as being overly sympathetic to Muslims, who make up between 5% to 10% of Myanmar’s population. Suu Kyi has not spoken up in favor of the Rohingya, and the NLD is not running a single Muslim candidate in the election.

Suu Kyi’s party has also been called out for being overly centralized and for not espousing distinct or precise policies, such as on the wide array of economic issues confronting Myanmar, which recently opened up to Western investment after decades of incompetent military management and debilitating international sanctions.

However, the party recently produced an economic policy document.

Myanmar remains one of Asia’s poorest countries, with less than half the population having access to electricity, particularly in rural areas, and with a heavy dependence on natural resource extraction and exports. Myanmar is rich in gas, gems, hydropower, oil and timber. But these sectors are seen as corrupt, with a recent Global Witness investigation suggesting that the jade sector is worth an estimated $31 billion a year, around half the country’s gross domestic product.

“The economic situation of our people has not improved,” Suu Kyi said, “particularly in rural areas.”

Discussing the current government’s policies, which have included a new foreign investment law, the granting of mobile telecom licenses to foreign companies, and the proposed establishment of a stock exchange, Suu Kyi said, “What we think is good will be kept; what we think is not good will be changed.”

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