2019/78, 23 September 2019
On 17 September 2019, 144 military members of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the Union Parliament of Myanmar, submitted a bill on constitutional amendment calculated to disqualify Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from continuing to hold the post of foreign minister. More importantly, the bill aims to produce a nativist right-wing narrative and to serve as the basis for an attack on current political office-holders in the run-up to the general elections due in November 2020. It will also enable attacks to those who hold political office in Myanmar in the future.
The bill copies and pastes, verbatim, Section 59(f) of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, which refers to the qualifications of the president and two vice-presidents and dictates that president and vice-presidents must not have foreign spouses or children, or children married to foreign nationals or owe allegiance to a foreign power. It is meant to extend the applicability of that section of the charter to the qualifications of cabinet or Union ministers and chief ministers of regions and states. The Myanmar-language text of the bill notably uses an English term “foreign connection” and warns of potential foreign influence via holders of high political office with such connections.
Section 59(f) barred Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president or vice-president of Myanmar because her two sons were “foreign” nationals, even though the National League for Democracy (NLD) party that she chaired won the 2015 general elections in a landslide. She therefore assumed the newly created position of state counsellor, to serve as the country’s de facto premier, and also became foreign minister. The qualifications specified in the constitution did not render her ineligible for either of these positions.
The prolonged process of drafting of the 2008 constitution, lasting from 1993 until 2007, occurred under military rule. After 1996, it did not include representatives of the NLD, which had won an overwhelming victory in the 1990 general elections. Since a so-called “democratic” transition began in 2010, Section 59(f) has come under scrutiny and faced criticism because it apparently targets Daw Aung San Suu Kyi specifically.
The NLD has sought to remove Section 59(f) from the charter in its latest attempt to effect amendment through the constitutional review process that ended in July 2019. It is now preparing an amendment bill. Notably, the two constitutional amendment bills that the former ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), tabled in February and May 2019 in cooperation with military members of parliament did not touch the section.
Procedurally, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw must consider a constitutional amendment bill as long as 20 per cent of the total membership table it. However, the bill recently submitted by military members will not result in constitutional amendment without the support of NLD members of parliament, who hold 59 per cent of the total seats and will definitely oppose the bill.
Although the bill will thus miss its target, it is likely to produce a xenophobic right-wing narrative against present and future political office-holders who allegedly have foreign connections. Its content closely resembles the strongly xenophobic narrative that the military produced and propagated in the 1990s and the 2000s against then opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her British husband Michael Aris, and her “Western” supporters.
However, the political context is markedly different now, in a Myanmar in transition. Political parties, including the USDP and the Rakhine ethnonationalist Arakan National Party, and other actors, such as Buddhist monk U Wirathu, have frequently drawn upon a nativist right-wing narrative against the NLD and are likely to do so again in the coming electoral contest. Narratives that both position those parties and the military as native and attack the NLD as foreign will thus become sales pitches in political campaigning.
Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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