YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar’s powerful army has told parliament it opposes changing a junta-drafted constitution that bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, days after US President Barack Obama called for it to be amended.
Military representatives – whose veto on charter change is guaranteed by the constitution – spoke out against amending a clause which bans Suu Kyi from high political office, during a heated debate that could have a major bearing on the country’s future after crucial 2015 elections.
“I would like you all to remember that the constitution is not written for just one person but for the future of everyone,” Colonel Htay Naing told MPs on Monday.
He added it would be “concerning if the children of our country’s president were foreign citizens”.
Suu Kyi’s late husband and two sons are British, making her ineligible for top office under the clause – 59f – which is widely thought to have been written with her in mind.
The Nobel laureate, who has publicly declared her desire to be president, last week told Obama that the constitution was “unfair, unjust and undemocratic” and warned that Myanmar’s much vaunted reforms were stalling.
The US leader took up the issue, telling reporters at her lakeside home that “the amendment process needs to reflect inclusion rather than exclusion”.
Unelected soldiers currently make up a quarter of Myanmar’s legislature, a hangover from military rule that ended in 2011 which ensures that the army continues to hold sway.
Under Section 436, any significant changes to the constitution require a majority vote of more than 75 per cent, thereby giving the last say to soldiers.
Observers say that the military, which kept Suu Kyi under lock and key for 15 years under the junta, has never wanted the veteran activist to have a chance at the presidency.
One Myanmar expert, who asked not to be named, said the army has long made clear they are not supportive of constitutional reform and this position would remain, “irrespective of Obama’s feelings on the matter”.
“But the fact that they have also made their own suggestions for changes means they don’t see the constitution as a sacred text that cannot be altered. That’s significant,” he told AFP.
Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy this year gained the signatures of around five million people – a tenth of the population – on a petition to end the army’s veto on amending the charter.
The military has brushed aside pressure to change the document.
“It is not the time to amend section 436,” Htay Naing said during the debate, aired on state-backed television Tuesday.
He said the country, where multiple conflicts in ethnic minority areas have long been used to justify the army’s strongarm rule, needed “unity” before any major changes.
Myanmar’s reform drive has lost much of its sheen in recent months, as efforts to end its multiple ethnic wars foundered and activists raised growing concerns that the nation is rolling back on rights issues.
The army has also faced criticism for the death of a reporter shot while in military custody in a remote border area last month.