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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 12, '14

Suu Kyi shifts pre-election tack in Myanmar
By Larry Jagan

YANGON - After two years of delicate accommodation, Myanmars military backed government and the main pro-democracy opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) are on a collusion course ahead of general elections scheduled for next year. An NLD-led campaign launched last month to amend the 2008 constitution is openly challenging the militarys political power and testing political stability ahead of the pivotal polls.

The national drive for charter change aims broadly to accelerate the countrys still tentative transition from decades of authoritarian military rule towards democracy. In particular, the campaign is

geared towards diminishing the role of military appointees to parliament who currently control 25% of its seats. The campaign however is not geared towards changing article 59(f), which bars NLD leader and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from assuming the presidency because she was married to a foreign national.

Under military rule, Suu Kyi spent 15 of 21 years under house arrest until her release in 2010. Her party boycotted 2010 elections swept by the military-linked United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but Suu Kyi and a group of around 40 other party members won electoral office in May 2012 during by-elections. Suu Kyi has since come under certain criticism for her perceived close cooperation with the military and its representatives in parliament and not speaking out forcefully enough about persecution of ethnic Rohingya in the countrys western region.

With new elections in sight, Suu Kyi is now trying to build up a significant pro-democracy movement through a more confrontational approach with the quasi-civilian administration led by President Thein Sein. "You have the guns and power but you are still scared of the people," Suu Kyi told tens of thousands of supporters who came to hear her speak in Mandalay last month.

The strongly worded speech, some analysts believe, represented a significant turning point in the NLDs previous conciliatory approach towards the military. "It was a direct challenge to the army," said a local political analyst who declined to be identified. Another analyst who attended the spirited speech said the anger was palpable in Suu Ky's voice.

Its a tone and message that will likely resonate well on the campaign trail. "I was so pleased. This is the first time I have heard Aung San Suu Kyi challenge the military out loud, and in public," said Mya Yee Nandar, a young nurse who attended the rally. "I had been disappointed with her approach before this change. Finally she is speaking with the voice of the people."

Even before she addressed her supporters in Mandalay and the old capital Yangon, Thein Sein and other government officials had vaguely warned the NLD-led opposition that any public campaign to change the constitution that led to unrest would only damage the countrys progress towards democracy.

The official campaign to change the constitution was launched on May 27, coincident with the anniversary of the 1990 elections which the NLD overwhelmingly won but the military annulled to prevent the party from forming a civilian government. The first step has been a signature drive to change the charters article 436, which stipulates that a 75% majority of parliament is needed to amend the constitution.

Currently 25% of parliaments seats are reserved for military appointees, a provision which gives the armed forces a de facto veto on any proposed charter change. The NLD is campaigning for this percentage to be reduced to 66%, with some in the party lobbying for an even lower 50%. Others have broached the idea of excluding the bloc of military appointees on any votes related to charter change.

Signatures are currently being collected at NLD offices across the country. The signature drive will be symbolically completed on the July 19 Martyrs Day - the anniversary of national independence hero and Suu Ky's father Aung Sans assassination. The signatures will then be submitted to parliaments constitutional review joint committee and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann.

Democratic message
The timing of the campaign aims to send a strong and clear message to Thein Seins quasi-civilian government and its military backers led by commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing. While the drive to date has not entailed any mass mobilizations, some in the party suggest they could take to the streets if the campaign is in any way subverted or is met with military resistance.

"We want to get the signatures in as peaceful a way as possible, without disturbing anybody" said Han Tha Myint, an NLD central executive committee member. "We told our people not to collect signatures house by house but to come to our offices voluntarily and sign."

Since Suu Kyi entered parliament two years ago, she has repeatedly tried to meet the army leader for talks about changing the constitution. She even flew in a helicopter one weekend last year to the town of Meik in southern Myanmar in hopes of meeting him in a low-profile location. Despite those efforts and overtures, the two are not known to have met for political discussions.

Suu Kyi and her party have more recently changed tack and for the last few months she has suggested a "summit" meeting with other key national leaders, including Thein Sein, Shwe Mann and Min Aung Hlaing. These efforts have also failed because the army chief has insisted the timing is still not right for him to meet her for political talks, though he has not altogether ruled out such a meeting in the future, according to sources close to the general.

When Suu Kyi last met Thein Sein for a private discussion in early March this year, she reportedly "berated" the president for not organizing a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, according to government sources. Some government insiders now believe that Thein Seins apparent failure or unwillingness to arrange a tête-à-tête with the army commander is part of the reason his relations with Suu Kyi have chilled after a promising start during their first historic meeting in 2011.

After two years of trying to talk directly with the army chief, Suu Kyi and her party have come to the strategic conclusion that they must try to influence the military and its affiliated politicians through more confrontational means. The strategy will also act to galvanize the NLDs grass roots base and pave the way for the formation of political alliances with like-minded groups and parties ahead of the polls.

Significantly, the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society led by former political prisoners cum politicians Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi are co-sponsors of the NLDs signature campaign. Political parties affiliated with ethnic minority groups which belong to the umbrella group the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) also support the drive. Ethnic parties are expected to notch substantial votes in their respective areas and will likely be key to the formation of any future NLD-led coalition government.

This is a key part of Suu Ky's strategy of building a mass movement supporting greater democracy. Since the 88 Generation Student Group leaders were released from prison in 2012, they have had an uneasy relationship with Suu Kyi and the NLD. Many feel Suu Kyi has often been condescending towards them and has not treated them as political equals. The 88 leaders, on the other hand, have come to understand that they must work with her and her party to achieve real democratic change. The two sides have recently collaborated on education reform issues.

The signature campaign will also give the NLD an opportunity to come to new terms with many ethnic parties, particularly in the populous Shan State where seats are expected to be hotly contested. The NLD and pro-democracy ethnic parties, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), collaborated in the past under the Committee Representing the Peoples Parliament but more recently relations have weakened, according to party sources.

Officially the NLD has announced it will contest every seat in which the ruling USDP fields candidates, "but that doesnt preclude us discussing an electoral pact with those parties that were allied with us in the past, like the SNLD, when the time is ripe," said NLD central committee member Han Tha Myint.

Once a taboo subject, Suu Ky's role is now being cautiously broached by some in the party. There is acknowledgement that the partys popularity is almost solely dependent on the so-called cult of the Lady. Shortly after Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, she told this reporter that the NLD was as important to her as she was to the NLD.

The question now is whether the NLD can galvanize popular support and win votes without her. In an announcement many interpreted as an attempt to undermine the NLDs electoral chances in 2015, chief electoral commissioner Tin Aye recently said that party leaders, including Suu Kyi, will not be allowed to campaign throughout the country and instead will be confined to their home constituencies.

In effect, the current signature campaign allows the party to mobilize around Suu Ky's strong popularity ahead of the official campaign season. During her speech in Mandalay, Suu Kyi told her admiring supporters to remember the assassinated American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, who said everything started with a dream and the fact that the US now has an African-American president.

"We must have such a dream as the starting point for change," Suu Kyi said. "And changing [article] 436 is one of the first steps."

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

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