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updated: 8/9/2014 4:20 PM

Myanmar rules stack cards against Suu Kyi party

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  • Protesters hold placards and shout slogans  as they protest Tuesday against a "proportional representation" system in parliament, in Yangon, Myanmar. The country's main opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi and dozens of ethnic political parties strongly opposed to the PR system.

    Protesters hold placards and shout slogans as they protest Tuesday against a "proportional representation" system in parliament, in Yangon, Myanmar. The country's main opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi and dozens of ethnic political parties strongly opposed to the PR system.
    Associated Press

By Chris Blake and Kyaw Thu
Bloomberg News

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Aung San Suu Kyi's quarter-century quest to lead Myanmar is running out of time because of a legal roadblock, posing a dilemma for a party that was forged around the mystique of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

With elections due late next year, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy may win the most seats in a national poll for the first time since 1990, when the military refused to recognize its election win and kept Myanmar, also known as Burma, in isolation for another generation. Even so, the NLD has failed to amend a constitution that bars Suu Kyi, 69, from the presidency because her two sons are British.

A parliamentary committee dominated by the military and the quasi-civilian government that come to power in 2010 recommended in June to preserve the part of the charter dealing with the presidency. That leaves the NLD and its aging leadership with a choice: Continue pushing for Suu Kyi to lead or forge a path in which the party is no longer centered on one person, a shift that may expose internal weaknesses and dissent.

"I sense that Aung San Suu Kyi would not be happy to step aside and allow another NLD candidate to be proposed," said Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos who is now on the board of Bagan Capital, a Myanmar-focused advisory firm. "The NLD is Aung San Suu Kyi's creation. Without her, the various components of the League would be likely to split and go their separate ways."

Senior party members won't speculate on who could step in for a woman who spent 15 years in detention and is simply known as "The Lady," saying their focus is on efforts to amend Article 59(f) of the charter, which keeps her from the highest office, as well as broader sections they consider undemocratic.

"There is no one who will succeed her," Win Htein, one of 15 members on the NLD's central executive committee, said in an interview at his home in Yangon, surrounded by photos of himself and Suu Kyi. "Her status is so high and no one can compete with her integrity."

He said it was "impossible" to get the necessary 75 percent of lawmakers to agree to change the constitution when by law the military is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament. Still, he said the party will do what it always has in the face of adversity: try harder.

"It will give us strength," said Win Htein, 72, who spent 20 years in prison under the former junta. "It will become an issue for the coming election because of the government's unwillingness to change that clause, it is for the people to struggle more and to support us more."

The transition from democracy icon to politician has raised challenges for Suu Kyi, who along with her party re-entered politics by contesting parliamentary by-elections in 2012, said Robert Taylor, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"People admire her principled stands, her willingness to stay under house arrest and all that, but also they see what's happened to her since she's become the world celebrity," said Taylor, author of "The State in Myanmar." "Living the life of Riley and traveling the world, skipping parliamentary sessions when they're supposed to be meeting to legislate, not ever actually asking a question in the parliament. What's she do?"

Suu Kyi has faced international criticism for not being vocal enough about the treatment of the Rohingya, a stateless minority in Myanmar's west who aren't recognized as citizens or an ethnic group by the government. She has also come under fire at home, including when villagers near a copper mine berated her on a visit aimed at persuading them to stop fighting for its closure.

Thein Nyunt, a member of the NLD for 22 years who split with the party when Suu Kyi called for a boycott of the 2010 election, accuses her of having "presidential fever" without a strong record of developing policy proposals in parliament. Now a lawmaker with the New National Democracy Party, he said the NLD's reliance on Suu Kyi will ultimately harm it.

"The NLD is going to face a very big problem within a decade," he said. "A party that relies on a personality cult is not good for the party's future."

Nyan Win, a member of the NLD's central executive committee, doesn't agree that the party has focused too much on changing Article 59(f), which bars people whose immediate family members are foreign citizens from being president. "It's important also, just like other sections."

He said the central executive committee, along with Suu Kyi as party chairwoman, meets every two weeks on policy. If Suu Kyi disagrees with committee members -- the youngest of whom is 62 - - they discuss the issue before reaching a decision.

The party's greatest challenge is finding new leaders, which is why the NLD created a youth congress, he said. "We need young leaders of the party," said Nyan Win, 71. "We are old."

Age isn't the only obstacle the NLD faces. With many of its senior members having spent years detained by the junta, it lacks experience.

"What's missing most for the NLD is capable people and expertise on certain issues," said Kyaw Lin Oo, the executive director of the Myanmar People Forum Working Group, which organizes workshops to discuss issues such as human rights. "They might have educators or medical doctors, but they don't have public policy experts, they don't have international relations specialists, they don't have overall strategic thinkers for the party to move forward."

Win Htein said the party acknowledges its inexperience in some areas. "We NLD leaders are very tough," he said. "We can face any difficulty, whether it is getting arrested or locked up. But in the long run it is very difficult to lead a government when we are not prepared and we have a deficiency of qualified leaders."

The party would be ready to "invite anybody" to join an NLD government, including former members of the military and the current ruling party, "if they are sympathetic to our political program." He said the NLD would also be open to a coalition.

The NLD is working to address its shortcomings, including its reliance on Suu Kyi, said Sean Turnell, an associate professor of economics at Macquarie University in Sydney who has traveled to Myanmar to conduct seminars for the party and advised the U.S. Congress on the country.

"Prior to say a year, year and a half ago, I think one could have some doubts about knowledge of the way things work," said Turnell, the author of "Fiery Dragons: Banks, Moneylenders and Microfinance in Burma." "They've made extraordinary efforts over the last year particularly to really train a younger cohort of people up at all sorts of levels."

An NLD government could also count on much more advice and assistance from the international community, Turnell said.

"Particularly from the U.S. there is a great number of actors sort of sitting on the sidelines who really can't get involved too much at this point with the current government but post-2015 one would imagine playing a much greater role," he said.

Even so, the international community is "coping reasonably well" with the current government, and Suu Kyi not becoming president could be a positive development, said Tonkin, the former ambassador.

"Suu Kyi has always been very much part of the problem," he said. "She does not heed advice, is a bad listener and demands total obedience," he said. "Without Suu Kyi, there would be a more normal relationship between Myanmar and other countries."

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