Myanmar moots changing constitution barring Suu Kyi from presidency

Hla-Hla Htay
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Myanmar President Thein Sein (L) greets Aung San Suu Kyi, chairman of National League for Democracy (NLD) and lower house member of Parliament, prior to their meeting at the persident's office in Naypyidaw, on October 31, 2014

Myanmar President Thein Sein (L) greets Aung San Suu Kyi, chairman of National League for Democracy (NLD) and lower house member of Parliament, prior to their meeting at the persident's office in Naypyidaw, on October 31, 2014 (AFP Photo/Phyoe Hein Kyaw)

Naypyidaw (Myanmar) (AFP) - Myanmar's parliament will consider amending the country's constitution -- which currently bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president -- ahead of crucial elections next year, an official said Friday.

Suu Kyi is trying to change key sections of Myanmar's charter ahead of 2015 polls that are widely expected to be won by her National League for Democracy (NLD), if they are free and fair, after decades of disastrous military rule.

The move to moot constitutional reform was discussed during unprecedented talks between President Thein Sein and his political rivals, including Suu Kyi, as well as top army brass and election officials.

"They agreed to discuss the issue of amending the constitution in parliament, according to the law," presidential spokesman Ye Htut told reporters after the meeting in the capital Naypyidaw.

The NLD has focused on altering a provision in the constitution that ensures the military in the former junta-ruled nation has a veto on any amendment to the charter.

It believes revising the clause will open the way for further changes to other constitutional provisions, including the ring-fenced proportion of soldiers in parliament and the effective bar on Suu Kyi becoming president.

As it stands, she is ineligible because of a clause in the 2008 charter blocking anyone whose spouse or children are overseas citizens from leading the country. The Nobel laureate's late husband was British, as are her two sons.

To alter the constitution there needs to be support from a 75 percent majority in parliament, and as unelected soldiers make up a quarter of the legislature they have the last say on any changes.

Ye Htut did not elaborate on which elements of the constitution were up for debate but said the talks had a "good result".

Suu Kyi, however, downplayed the outcome of the meeting in comments to reporters.

"I do not know how they stated the meeting was a success," she said, adding the NLD would like to see a more focussed discussion with a smaller group of people.

- Obama calls -

The extraordinary talks Friday -- the first of their kind as the nation emerges from decades of outright military rule -- saw Thein Sein and Suu Kyi walk into the meeting together.

The discussions came a day after the White House said US President Barack Obama spoke to Thein Sein and Suu Kyi about the elections, which are seen as a key test of democratic reforms under the quasi-civilian government.

Obama "underscored the need for an inclusive and credible process for conducting the 2015 elections" during telephone talks with the Myanmar president, said the White House in a statement.

The US leader also spoke to Suu Kyi about how Washington can help promote "a more inclusive political environment", less than a fortnight before he visits the once pariah nation for a major regional conference.

Last week Myanmar authorities announced the landmark polls would be held in the final week of October or the first week of November 2015.

Myanmar's previous general election in 2010 was marred by widespread accusations of cheating and held without Suu Kyi, who was kept under lock and key until days after the vote, or her NLD party.

The polls came as the military relinquished its outright control of the government, after decades of misrule in which they turned Myanmar into a diplomatic pariah and drove the economy into the ground.

- 'Carefully timed' -

Under Thein Sein, a former general, Myanmar is now at a crossroads as it grapples with thorny political questions and the search for a nationwide ceasefire to several rebellions.

Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar and visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said the timing of Friday's meeting, before Obama's visit, was highly significant.

"Without a doubt this is carefully timed. Even if (the outcome of) this meeting wasn't positive he (Thein Sein) could certainly say to Obama I've tried and made an effort to listen to people."

In 2012 by-elections Suu Kyi's party won almost every seat available and the 69-year-old, who spent more than a decade under house arrest during the junta years, became an MP for the first time.

The NLD is now expected to win a major slice of the legislature next year after which parliament will select a president.

Myanmar has promised the vote will be the freest in the country's modern history after the military ceded direct power to a quasi-civilian government three years ago and launched a dramatic set of reforms.

But the country still faces a myriad of challenges -- including an opaque legal system, creaking infrastructure and significant poverty levels -- that will need to be tackled by any new government after next year's election.