Is Suu Kyi Fighting a Losing Battle?

Aung San Suu Kyi, it seems to me, is losing her political battle to amend Burma’s undemocratic 2008 Constitution.

Changing the military-drafted Constitution is the opposition leader’s main task ahead of the country’s next national election in 2015. One of the chief reasons she decided to run for a seat in Parliament in a by-election in 2012 was to work toward this goal.

Unless she succeeds, there’s no chance that she will be able to achieve her ultimate objective: to become the president of Burma.

But after more than a year of trying to win support among key members of the current quasi-civilian government, including the incumbent president, ministers and powerful parliamentarians, she seems to be growing frustrated. Although they have all seemed receptive to her ideas, none have shown any willingness to back her bid for change.

Speaking to her supporters at a rally in Naypyidaw last week, her impatience came to the fore.

“I respect those who say frankly that they absolutely cannot accept the amendment of the Constitution,” she said, before warning against casting a vote for “those who try to convince the public with cunning tricks and phony smiles to amend only the very minor issues of the Constitution.”

But it seems that no matter what she says or does, she is unlikely to win against those who resist real change. And with just two years to go until the country goes to the polls again, time is not on the side of the iconic 68-year-old leader.

For Suu Kyi, the great sticking point in the national charter is Section 59(f), which bars her from becoming president or vice-president on the grounds that she was married to a foreign national, the late British academic Michael Aris, and has two children who hold foreign citizenship. Unless she can somehow change this provision, she stands no chance of becoming Burma’s next head of state.

Now, after more than a year of trying to achieve this end by making nice with her former foes, she is hoping that she can get public opinion to decisively turn the tide in her favor. Since early November, her National League for Democracy (NLD) has held large rallies in Rangoon and Naypyidaw in a show of public support for constitutional change. More can be expected elsewhere in the country in the months to come.

But will this be enough to make a difference? Or will the government, the Parliament dominated by military appointees and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and the armed forces itself remain unmoved?

As an entrenched political class, the military men and all who are closely associated with them are not likely to yield either to Suu Kyi’s charm offensives or to her demonstrated ability to move the masses. Even though some—most notably Shwe Mann, the powerful speaker of the Union Parliament—have publicly backed her calls for constitutional changes, there are no guarantees that they won’t desert her at the end of the day.

Perhaps the greatest problem is that no one from the government, the ruling USDP or—most importantly—the military seems to trust her. Without a green light from the generals, Suu Kyi’s quest for constitutional change will be a non-starter. And Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has already made clear that he sees the military’s main duty as safeguarding the Constitution.

Suu Kyi knows this, and has done her best to win over the generals with her professions of “fondness” for the armed forces founded by her father, independence hero Gen Aung San. So far, however, they seem unconvinced that she has their best interests at heart.

So where does this leave her? Besides her still strong popular support at home, Suu Kyi enjoys a special status on the world stage, giving her some leverage to influence international opinion. But apart from expressing concern about the undemocratic nature of the Constitution, Western governments don’t seem particularly interested in exerting any real pressure on Burma’s “reformist” government—especially now that there are major investment opportunities at stake.

It seems, then, that unless something changes dramatically over the next two years, Suu Kyi’s path to the presidency will remain impeded. And what that means for the rest of us, as we strive to shed the legacy of half a century of military misrule, remains to be seen.