Suu Kyi party admits cannot win fight to change constitution

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Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi takes part in a press conference in Yangon, on November 14, 2014

Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi takes part in a press conference in Yangon, on November 14, 2014 (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party admitted Wednesday it cannot win its fight to change a constitutional provision barring her from Myanmar's presidency, as the powerful military signalled strong opposition to such amendments.

In a fresh blow to democracy campaigners after authorities in the former junta-run nation ruled out major constitutional change before crucial 2015 elections, the party said it did not have the power to push through reforms in the face of an effective army veto.

Parliament has been gripped by a series of fierce debates over the constitution that have highlighted the glaring divide between reformers from civilian parties and their counterparts in army uniform, who hold a quarter of all seats.

"Calculate the ratio mathematically. We cannot win (the fight to change key sections of the constitution)," opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesman Nyan Win told AFP, listing both the clause that bars Suu Kyi and one that gives the military the final say on amendments.

Parliamentary representatives of the military have spoken out in unprecedented numbers in recent days, voicing staunch opposition to any change that would threaten their position in the legislature.

"So why are we working for it? Because we believe in democracy," added Nyan Win, in some of the party's most downbeat remarks on a charter which many believe was specifically designed to thwart Suu Kyi's political rise.

Legislators will choose a new president after the general election in November 2015, which is seen as a key test of the country's emergence from outright military rule.

- Surprise move -

Suu Kyi’s NLD is expected to win if polls are free and fair.

But the veteran democracy campaigner cannot stand for the top post because a clause in the constitution, 59f, bans those with a foreign spouse or children. Her two sons are British, as was her late husband.

US President Barack Obama last week raised concerns about the clause, saying "the amendment process needs to reflect inclusion rather than exclusion".

Parliament speaker Shwe Mann said Tuesday a referendum would be held next May on major charter amendments approved by parliament after the current debates.

But he said it would be impossible to implement changes until after the election.

The NLD earlier this year gained five million signatures on a petition to remove the army's veto on constitutional change.

Nyan Win said the party would keep campaigning for change and had a back-up plan, although he declined to elaborate on it.

Activists at the NLD's Yangon headquarters appeared unfazed earlier Wednesday, selling Suu Kyi T-shirts and trinkets as normal.

But Myanmar media sounded the alarm.

"Is Suu Kyi admitting defeat?" asked the news website Democratic Voice of Burma.

The political prisoner-turned-politician Wednesday told reporters on the sidelines of the parliamentary debate in the capital Naypyidaw that she accepted Shwe Mann's amendment timetable as "normal procedure".

- Fears of foreign influence -

"We just want the military to be more in line with democratic standards," she added.

Myanmar's parliament is dominated by the military and the army-backed ruling party.

Soldiers owe their place in the legislature to the controversial 2008 constitution, which was drawn up by the then-junta as it kept critics and opposition activists locked up.

A vote to change the constitution's key points requires more than 75 percent support -- thus giving the army the final say.

"We should keep section 59f the same," Lieutenant Colonel Myo Htet Win told the house on Wednesday.

He said that "if a person who has mixed with foreign blood" were to get the top position, "our nation could swiftly become a puppet government, even without colonisation".

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma and ruled by the British until 1948, was plunged into isolation by a military regime that seized power in 1962.

But in the past three years, its reforms have earned international praise and the removal of most sanctions.

The quasi-civilian leadership, which remains dominated by former generals, has freed most political prisoners, allowed Suu Kyi and her party into parliament and ended draconian media censorship.

But last week Obama added his voice to concerns that the transition is backsliding in certain areas, including press freedom and human rights.