Aung San Suu Kyi

Ban on Suu Kyi standing for Myanmar presidency poses dilemma for party

Constitution bars her from presidency, but if followers shift focus from the pro-democracy icon they risk exposing splits within NLD

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 9:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 8:32am

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 recognise its election win and kept Myanmar in isolation for another generation. Even so, the NLD has been unsuccessful in efforts to amend a constitution that bars Suu Kyi, 69, from the presidency because her two sons are British.

Watch: Legal roadlock on Aung San Suu Kyi's way to be president

A parliamentary committee dominated by the military and the quasi-civilian government that came to power in 2010 recommended in June preserving the part of the charter dealing with the presidency. That leaves the NLD and its ageing leadership with a choice - continue pushing for Suu Kyi to lead or forge a path in which the party is no longer centred 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 will not speculate on who could step in for a woman who spent 15 years in detention and is simply known as "The Lady".

"There is no one who will succeed her," Win Htein, one of 15 members on the NLD's central executive committee, said. "Her status is so high and no one can compete with her integrity."

He said it was "impossible" to get the necessary 75 per cent of lawmakers to agree to change the constitution when by law the military is guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in parliament.

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 travelling 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 doing?"