Commentary: Pursuing Myanmar's ‘first priority’ of constitutional change - worth the criticism and pain?

Commentary: Pursuing Myanmar's ‘first priority’ of constitutional change - worth the criticism and pain?

Aung San Suu Kyi needs local support more than international favour to implement the changes Myanmar needs, which is why she will not take actions that antangonise her support base, says Rhys Thompson.

NAY PYI TAW: Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party took power in Myanmar promising change, but have yet to deliver.

The problems faced by the incoming administration were considerable, and now the Rohingya crisis has prompted some calls for this fallen idol to hand back her Nobel Peace Prize.

But Myanmar politics are complex and Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent actions should be considered in the context of what she has long regarded as her number one priority: Constitutional change.

In the face of growing condemnation, Suu Kyi broke her silence this week. While the international community was largely underwhelmed by her speech, which touched on the Rakhine conflict, in Myanmar, it met with support from those who believe she had been portrayed unfairly by international media and say she was standing up for her country.

To achieve any of her major pre-election pledges, especially constitutional change, Suu Kyi needs local support more than she needs international favour. This helps explain her strategy up to this week, and the careful nuances in her speech.

A public “silence” is her best bet to keeping the support of her public and importantly, that of the Myanmar military.


Constitutional change featured heavily in the NLD's election manifesto, and Aung San Suu Kyi has stated it was a “first priority” during her pre-election pledges.

One of Myanmar President Htin Kyaw's first moves in the new parliament was an attempt to amend the constitution, proposing to change the number of votes required for constitutional amendment from 75 per cent to 70 per cent.

This change, had it come to pass, would have given the majority NLD government what it needed to make key constitutional changes, including diminishing the military's influence. It could also have meant that Suu Kyi would be able to become President.

Section 59(f) of the constitution, drafted with Suu Kyi in mind, prevents this. Before the 2015 election, Suu Kyi said she would be “above the President”, despite the constitution stating that the President “takes precedence over all other persons” in Myanmar. She appointed a trusted acolyte as President and created the position of State Counsellor for herself to act as a proxy President's Office.

People hold the Myanmar  flag and placards as they listen to Suu Kyi's speech in Yangon
People hold the Myanmar flag and placards as they listen to Suu Kyi's speech in Yangon (Photo: AFP/Aung Kyaw Htet)

But while she may control the President, she's not the President.

It is hard to believe that Suu Kyi is now merely abiding by the constitution or that constitutional change is really on the backburner. We should not underestimate her desire to rule Myanmar as her father did, and not as a de facto leader.

Past comments she has made also suggest Suu Kyi believes that if she can become Myanmar's official leader, then she can implement the changes Myanmar needs.

This context helps explain her behaviour since the NLD took power and failed to achieve its “first priority”.


Suu Kyi's reluctance to interfere in Rakhine state and Rohingya-related issues helps her hold onto her strong, predominantly Bamar-Buddhist support base. It also avoids antagonising radical Buddhist elements such as the Ma Ba Tha, which, despite arguments that it had faded away, still influences sections of society and plans to become more political.

Similar considerations were also arguably why the NLD chose not to field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections.

More broadly, Suu Kyi's silence also helps keep other non-military political parties onside, especially in Rakhine State. She will need their support in parliament if she pushes for constitutional change again.

Perhaps most interestingly, Suu Kyi hasn't challenged the military on its actions in the country's various continued armed conflicts, including in Kachin and Shan states. This is despite military offensives increasing in intensity throughout the NLD's peace discussions with armed ethnic groups – another stated “priority”.

The military likely knows its actions will negatively affect the peace process, but has continued regardless. It has shown little respect to Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, but she has not called them out, nor has she publicly criticised the Tatmadaw's actions.

General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar's powerful army, has called for national unity in
General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of Myanmar's powerful army, has called for national unity in solving the situation in Rakhine state. (Photo: AFP)

Doing so would publicly elevate the Tatmadaw's status and confirm it as the most powerful institution in Myanmar – something Suu Kyi would not want, though her silence has arguably achieved this anyway.

But she needs the military onside for parliament and government to function properly, especially with governance already involving constant negotiation between the groups.

More importantly, to achieve constitutional change, Suu Kyi needs over 75 per cent of the parliamentary vote. The military's 25 per cent bloc in parliament guarantees a veto if all military MPs vote together.

She needs all non-military members of parliament on her side and some military members of parliament to cross the floor.

By going along with military decisions and policies, or staying silent, Suu Kyi likely thinks she can chip away at the military establishment, potentially gaining enough trust and support for when the time comes.

After all, why else would she put herself through this?

Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear she is a politician, and not a democratic icon. Politicians play roles and use situations to their advantage to achieve outcomes, even at the expense of others.

Playing the role of a humble democratic icon taking on the military regime worked – she gained local and international support, ultimately leading to her party's landslide election win in 2015.

That she's now playing another role to achieve a different objective is not surprising and her actions suggest she views the pursuit of this objective as worth the pain and criticism.

But it is hard to see the Tatmadaw agreeing to changes that would minimise or remove its influence in Myanmar politics or society.

Even if Suu Kyi succeeds, it will likely be a pyrrhic victory - her reputation may well be irrevocably damaged and other political contenders would have already targeted her support base, planning for their own political futures.

But if she fails, she will remain a fallen idol.

Rhys Thompson is a consultant based in Myanmar. This commentary first appeared in the Lowry Institute’s blog The Interpreter. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/sl