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Travel ban fuels talk of Myanmar constitutional challenge

Reuters

The party of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi has instructed its lawmakers not to leave the capital, rank-and-file members said, fueling speculation of a legal bid to sidestep a clause in the constitution barring the democracy champion from the presidency.

Eight new lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) said the party’s top governing body, the 15-strong Central Executive Committee (CEC), had told them to stay in Naypyitaw, where the NLD-dominated parliament began its five-year term this week.

“We are not allowed to take any leave until the end of next week,” said a new NLD member who did not want to be identified. “One of the NLD CEC members said there may be some important matters or emergency bills coming up next week.”

The directive has intensified speculation among lawmakers that the party could table legislation to suspend the provision that prevents Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi from becoming president despite her thumping win in the historic election in November.

Senior NLD figures either declined to comment or said they were not aware of such a move, which would represent a major shift in their strategy and could pose a direct challenge to the still-powerful military.

The NLD, which won about 80 percent of the contested seats in the November poll, has so far taken a conciliatory approach to dealing with its former enemies in the armed forces, who ruled the former Burma with an iron fist for almost 50 years.

Representatives of the outgoing, military-linked government said any attempt to circumvent the provision would be unlawful.

At issue is article 59 (f) of the constitution drafted in 2008 by the junta before it handed power to a semicivilian government led by former generals in 2011.

The article bars anyone with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president. The clause was widely seen as aimed specifically at Suu Kyi — whose two children are British citizens — and the NLD has called the document “ridiculous.”

Suu Kyi has said she will rule “above the president,” but has given few details about her plans, fueling speculation about figurehead presidential candidates or legal devices to allow her to lead the new government when a lengthy transition is completed at the end of March.

One such device would be to temporarily suspend article 59 (f), a move first floated by prominent lawmaker and former general Aung Ko. He is a close friend of Shwe Mann, the former speaker of parliament purged from the junta-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party last year and now a key Suu Kyi ally.

Such a temporary suspension, the thinking goes, could allow Suu Kyi to become president without formally changing the constitution, which requires the votes of more than three-quarters of parliamentarians — so giving the military, which holds 25 percent of seats, a veto — and a national referendum.

While Myanmar’s post-independence 1947 constitution allowed for the suspension of articles, the 2008 charter, which has been criticized as vague and open to interpretation, makes no mention of it.

“In our constitution, there’s no provision saying whether or not 59 (f) can be suspended,” Aung Ko told local media in December. “In such a case, the law can be suspended.”

Ko Ni, the NLD’s legal expert, as well as Nyan Win, a senior NLD official and Suu Kyi’s legal advisor, said they thought the parliament could suspend the article with a simple majority.

“There is an informal way (to amend the constitution) in which we have to enact a special law to temporarily suspend the provision in 59 (f). This law can be enacted by 51 percent of votes at the Union Parliament,” said Ko Ni.

It was unclear whether the top NLD ranks are planning to table such a proposal. Nyan Win, a CEC member, and Ko Ni said they did not know of such plans.

Win Htein, a former political prisoner and one of the party’s most influential leaders, declined to comment, but said it would announce its presidential candidate next week.

Ye Htut, Information Minister and spokesman for the outgoing President Thein Sein, said a constitutional article could only be suspended in a state of emergency, with executive powers transferred to the army chief.

Such a step would also set a bad precedent for the country’s burgeoning democracy, he added in an interview with Reuters.

“Now the NLD suspends one article, what happens after 2020, another party comes in and they suspend another 10 articles or 12 articles? So what will happen to our country?” said Ye Htut.

The military-owned Myawady daily said in an editorial coinciding with the inauguration of parliament on Monday that it opposed any changes to the constitution.

“The head of the state should be someone who the entire people can trust without any doubt,” said the editorial.

“Therefore, the family members of the head of the state should not be ones who are entitled to enjoy the rights and privileges of a subject of a foreign country.”