Suu Kyi says hopes to lead Myanmar despite constitutional ban

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters before giving a speech during her campaign in her constituency of Kawhmu township outside Yangon September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Timothy Mclaughlin YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said she plans to lead the next government if her National League for Democracy (NLD) comes to power in the Nov. 8 election, despite being barred from becoming president. The NLD is expected to do well in the election, billed as the country's first free and fair contest in 25 years, but Myanmar's military-drafted constitution blocks Suu Kyi from becoming president because her late husband and two sons are not Myanmar citizens. There is no earmarked deputy to the Nobel laureate in the NLD and the party's failed efforts to amend the constitution to allow Suu Kyi to be president have led to speculation about who would lead an NLD majority government. "I've made it quite clear that if the NLD wins elections and we form a government, I'm going to be the leader of that government whether or not I'm the president," Suu Kyi told the Indian television channel, India Today TV. The comments are some of Suu Kyi's most detailed on her post-election ambitions. "Why not? Should you have to be president to lead a country?" said Suu Kyi. "The leader of the NLD government would have to be me, because I'm the leader of my party." Asked if she planned to emulate India's Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, who named Manmohan Singh as prime minister when her party formed the government but retained immense power, Suu Kyi said: "Oh no, no, no, not quite like that. So you wait and see." She did not elaborate. In Myanmar, the president is chosen from three candidates nominated by the two houses of parliament and the military, which holds a quarter of the seats in the bicameral chamber. The president then forms the government. There is no prime minister. Suu Kyi has forged ties with Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament, ousted by President Thein Sein from the leadership of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in August. Suu Kyi's ties with Shwe Mann, a former general, sparked speculation that the NLD might select him as a presidential nominee but she distanced herself from the idea during the interview. "We will have a civilian member of our party," Suu Kyi said about a potential nominee. "It's not a matter of preference. It is a matter of what is appropriate and it would be more appropriate for us to have a bona fide civilian, NLD candidate for president." RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE Suu Kyi expressed worries over an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar and religion being used for political means, saying that there were, "very, very worrying signs of religious intolerance which we did not have in this country before." The NLD has been criticized for not putting up any Muslim candidates in its field of over 1,100 parliamentary and regional assembly hopefuls, but Suu Kyi has remained quiet on the issue. During the interview, Suu Kyi said that the one Muslim candidate the NLD tried to field was disqualified by the electoral commission. When asked if she was sorry about not having any Muslim candidates, she said that she was sorry that religion had become an issue in the election. Nationalist monks, particularly the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, have sharply criticized the NLD for what they see as its failure to sufficiently protect Buddhism. Suu Kyi said that this worried her, but that it was difficult for her party to fight back because the constitution forbids the mixing of religion and politics. "It is a fact that this government certainly has not taken much action against those who are using religion to attack the NLD although that is against the law," she said, when asked if government policy had contributed to the increasing role of religion in politics. One of the most outspoken leaders of Ma Ba Tha, Wirathu, endorsed president Thein Sein, and said the NLD members "were full of themselves" and unlikely to win the election. Suu Kyi reiterated her defense to criticism that she has said little about Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims, around 140,000 of whom remain stateless in Rakhine state following clashes with Rakhine Buddhists in 2012. She is scheduled to visit the state later this month. "I have talked about it, but people are not interested," Suu Kyi said. "Because what they want me to do is to condemn the Rakhine. I can't condemn the Rakhine for the simple fact that the Rakhine have many grievances as well." (Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Simon Webb and Raju Gopalakrishnan)