As Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawmakers smiled for the cameras at the first sessions of Burma’s parliament, a summit of generals convened at a base just minutes from the chamber. On every mind was the same question: who will be the country’s next president?
The parallel events summed up the complex nature of the political transition: a much-publicised election of parliament speakers at which former foes from Suu Kyi’s party and the military shook hands, while behind closed doors the country’s top power brokers met to hammer out how they will run Burma.
After a quiet period following Suu Kyi’s massive election win in November, negotiations have entered a critical stage since a meeting between army chief Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi on 26 January, lawmakers and diplomats close to the process say.
With its huge mandate Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) can chose the next president but, under the constitution written by the army before it ceded power in 2011, she herself cannot take the job. The NLD wants that changed.
“Our first priority includes amending laws which are out of date and not in harmony with the present situation,” Tun Tun Hein, a member of the NLD’s governing council, told reporters after being appointed chairman of the key lower house bill committee. “The constitution also needs amending since it’s one of the laws.”
The army has so far insisted it wants no change to the constitution and would not countenance Suu Kyi’s presidency. She has struck a defiant note, saying she would lead the country “standing above the president”.
Now, some Burma-based diplomats say Min Aung Hlaing might be tempted to compromise in return for a pledge from Suu Kyi that she would not infringe on the military’s vast economic interests nor seek revenge for abuses under years of junta rule.
As well as burnishing his legacy, such a move would also put responsibility for fixing an impoverished country riven by decades of ethnic conflict squarely on Suu Kyi, they say.
“If you keep her without any official title she is free to strategise without the day-to-day burden of running the country,” said a Western diplomat, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The New York Times on Friday cited two senior members of the NLD as saying that talks with the military have included a possible deal that would allow Suu Kyi to be president in exchange for senior government posts. It did not name the party leaders and said details of the negotiations were murky.
Blurred red lines
It is not known what was discussed at this week’s meeting at army headquarters, which sits close to the sprawling parliament complex in Burma’s remote capital Naypyitaw.
Confirming the gathering coincided with the opening week of the newly elected legislature, two sources familiar with the matter said senior commanders from across the country gather a few times a year to discuss military matters.
But politics was likely high on the agenda — the military retains a central role in the country now known as Myanmar, with a quarter of seats in parliament reserved for it, along with control of the security forces and the civil service.
Moreover, with its block of seats in parliament the military wields a veto over any changes to the constitution, which requires a super-majority of more than 75 percent.
Asked about the chances that the constitution could be amended to allow Suu Kyi to be president, Maj. Gen. Tauk Tun, the most senior military lawmaker in the lower house, did not entirely rule it out, while at the same time sticking to the military’s line on the sanctity of the 2008 charter.
“We’ll do it according to the constitutional provisions,” he said.
Even if the two sides were to agree to change the constitution, it would still require a nationwide referendum.
To circumvent that lengthy process, Article 59(f), which bars anyone with a foreign spouse or children from the presidency and so disqualifies Suu Kyi, whose sons are British citizens, could be suspended, according to Aung Ko, a former general and Suu Kyi ally, and NLD legal experts.
Whether that would be lawful remains open to debate, and even some Suu Kyi supporters worry about the precedent it could set.
“Personally I do want Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to become the president, but I honestly don’t think the constitution should be suspended since this is not a good tradition to hand down to future parliaments,” said lawmaker Ba Shin of the Arakan National Party, a large ethnic party from Arakan State.
The NLD has until the end of March to organise the presidential vote in the parliament, but top leaders said they may carry it out next week or toward the end of February, suggesting the two sides could be close to striking a deal.
“They are trying to find a solution that doesn’t step on everyone’s red lines,” said Kelly Currie, senior fellow at the Washington-based Asia-focused think tank Project 2049 Institute.
“Most likely a more straightforward situation is better. Better than Suu Kyi governing but not having a position.”