Suu Kyi races to change charter

With elections looming next year, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is stepping up efforts to change a constitution that bars her from the presidency and gives substantial political power to unelected military members of parliament.

Suu Kyi became an international icon after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her pro-democracy efforts and spent most of the next two decades under house arrest where she continued to resist Myanmar's military rulers.

She remains wildly popular at home, but is nonetheless unable to fulfil her wish to become president due to a constitutional clause written to exclude her from office. Now, she says, her priority is to change another clause that grants the military de-facto power over constitutional amendments.

The constitution drafted under a former military regime sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and more than half of the rest are held by its allies in the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), many of them former officers.

Section 436 requires 75 percent support for most amendments to the constitution, which would currently need the support of most USDP and military MPs, an unlikely achievement for any proposal aiming at undercutting the military's role in politics.

"If we don't change 436, it means that the military has virtual veto power over what can or cannot be changed within the constitution," Suu Kyi told Reuters on Sunday.

Suu Kyi has received a boost from a surprising source: a USDP-dominated parliamentary committee examining constitutional amendments.

The panel voted to change the 75 percent majority required to a two-thirds majority, one member said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity as the committee's affairs are meant to be kept secret.

That could make it easier for the NLD to push through further amendments, including eliminating the clause that prevents anyone with a child or spouse with foreign citizenship from being president.

Most analysts believe this clause, 59 (f), was written into the military-drafted 2008 constitution specifically to sideline Suu Kyi. Her late husband was British, as are her two sons.

By focusing on the majority required for constitutional change, Suu Kyi was able to appeal to a broader array of people, according to Andrew McLeod, who leads the Myanmar programme at Oxford University's Faculty of Law.

"She was always likely to be branded as debating in self-interest if she focused solely on 59 (f)," he said.

Some sense a mood for change in the military.

"Many of the constitutional questions are about civilian control of the military," said Tom Malinowsky, U.S. assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour, who met military representatives in Myanmar last week.

"My impression is that they are wrestling with that very question," he told a small group of journalists on Saturday. "We got questions about it from the younger officers ... (who) asked us to talk about how quickly this change should take place."

Suu Kyi says she's not daunted by the tight time frame.

"I don't think in terms of optimism," Suu Kyi told Reuters. "I always think in terms of how hard we can work to achieve what we're trying to achieve, and I think we are capable of a lot of hard work." 

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