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Myanmar's new leader hints at bringing Suu Kyi to power

Myanmar's new president Htin Kyaw (L) receives the presidential seal from outgoing president Thein Sein, during a handover ceremony in Naypyitaw on March 30, 2016
Ko Myo | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Myanmar's new president Htin Kyaw (L) receives the presidential seal from outgoing president Thein Sein, during a handover ceremony in Naypyitaw on March 30, 2016

Myanmar's new president has alluded to removing a highly controversial constitutional clause that could see revolutionary leader Aung San Suu Kyi come to power. The country's powerful military is unlikely to be impressed.

"I have a duty to amend this constitution so that it becomes a constitution that suits our country and matches democratic values," said Htin Kyaw after being sworn in as Myanmar's first civilian president in fifty years on Wednesday.

Political strategists believe he was referring to a rule that bans Suu Kyi, leader of the ruling political party National League for Democracy (NLD), from becoming president due to the fact that her children are British citizens, as was her late husband.

Htin Kyaw was hand-picked by Suu Kyi earlier this month for the role of president, a move that makes him a proxy leader with Suu Kyi indirectly calling the shots, Myanmar watchers widely agree.

Any change to the current constitution, passed in 2008, requires 75 percent approval among parliamentarians. But with 25 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for the military, that could be tricky.

The nation's armed junta controlled the political landscape until it officially dissolved in 2011, having initially staged a coup in 1962.

But even after 2011, military dominance still prevailed under ex-president and army bureaucrat Thein Sein. The military's political party—the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—continues to exercise political control in the defense, home affairs, and border affairs ministries. The faction also commands a legislative veto in parliament, further complicating matters.

Moreover, the army possesses a long-entrenched antagonism towards Suu Kyi, having placed her under house arrest for 15 years and ignoring her landslide victory in the 1990 general election, which was aimed at forming a committee to draft a new constitution rather than a new government. Last year, efforts to remove the military's veto ability and partially amend the clause than bans Suu Kyi from becoming president failed to secure the required 75 percent approval.

Despite the odds, experts such as Sean Turnell, associate professor at Macquarie University, believe Htin Kyaw can make the constitutional change.

"There is wriggle room for him to move on that front. If you look at the track record of other countries in Asia, we see similar trends: an early constitution after military rule still embeds the military in the government apparatus but over time, there's dissolution of that power. I think we'll see the same taking place in Myanmar."

Indonesia is a prominent example when it comes to the decline of military power, he continued, referring to 2001 when Southeast Asia's largest economy was able to extract armed forces from politics and the economy.

While Turnell is confident Htin Kyaw can succeed in constitutional reform via open dialogue with the army, he warns progress will occur at a snail's pace.

"Constitutional changes will only come after a period of trust, when the military perceives the NLD isn't a threat. Once they realize the country would be better off in a democratic, open government, things will change."

Human rights groups say a new constitution is crucial to Myanmar's overall democratization.

"The constitution remains a major stumbling block to establishing democracy since it ensures military control over all aspects of the country's so-called transition to democracy, provides complete autonomy and impunity for the military and fails to allow self-determination in ethnic areas," the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) said in its 2015 outlook.

If Htin Kyaw succeeds, it could mark a new chapter in the former pariah state's transition to a booming emerging market.

"If it can happen, it would reinforce the momentum surrounding Myanmar currently," stated Bhavya Sehgal, regional head and managing director Asia Pacific, at advisory firm Frontier Strategy Group.

A democratic environment is essential for multinationals and greater foreign investment so a reduced military presence could unleash Myanmar's true potential, he suggested.

"But any [potential] constitutional changes in 2016 are minimal, so investors remain in wait-and-watch mode," he noted.

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