Aung San Suu Kyi Signals Threat to Boycott Myanmar Election

By Shibani Mahtani
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi signaled that her party would
boycott general elections in 2015 if the constitution isn’t amended to
allow her to run for president.

The Nobel laureate’s comments raised the stakes around the election and
its potential to upset Myanmar’s progress toward democracy.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi applauded during a rally in her constituency of Kawhmu township in Yangon Saturday. Associated Press

“One should not take part in a competition which was arranged to give one side an unfair advantage,” Ms. Suu Kyi said Sunday to a cheering crowd of 30,000 gathered in Tharyarwaddy, a town an hour and a half north of Yangon. The speech was posted on her party’s Facebook page and reported by local media.

Politicians “who possess moral dignity,” she added, shouldn’t participate in the vote.

Under the constitution—drafted by the former military government in 2008—she couldn’t assume the presidency because she was married to a foreign national. Ms. Suu Kyi was held in detention for 15 of the past 21 years under the military regime that ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, for nearly 50 years until general elections—dismissed by Western nations as unrepresentative and boycotted by Ms. Suu Kyi’s party—were held in November 2010, putting a nominally-civilian government in place.

Nyan Win, the spokesman for Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said Tuesday in an interview that the party has “at the present time, not decided whether to run or not.”

The NLD would be a strong contender to win in 2015, and would be likely select Ms. Suu Kyi as president if she were allowed to run.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s comments carry significant weight, and raise the specter of sliding back toward prereform Myanmar, when Western sanctions against its former military junta were still in place. Under the constitution, the military controls 25% of the seats in Parliament.

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein Reuters

The foreign policies of the U.S. and Europe toward the Southeast Asian country have been heavily influenced by the Ms. Suu Kyi’s political experience there. Both powers eased sanctions against Myanmar only after the 2012 by-elections, in which her party took part in for the first time since 1990 and won 43 out of 45 seats available.

“Supposing 2015 is free and fair, but the constitution is not changed by then, the key question is what will the [U.S.] policy reaction will be,” said David Steinberg, a specialist on Myanmar at Georgetown University in Washington.

This, he added, might include a rethinking of the sanctions regime. The U.S. largely suspended sanctions in 2012, and now urges U.S. companies to take advantage of business opportunities in the frontier market.

In July, Myanmar’s nominally civilian government formed a 109-member parliamentary committee to review the constitution. Over the past two months, the committee has accepted submissions on which clauses various groups want changed or preserved from a variety of stakeholders and is expected to make public an initial draft of recommendations by the end of January.

But some of Ms. Suu Kyi’s advisers privately fear that the process will drag on or that the initial recommendations will be vague, crippling the opposition leader’s ability to plan her campaign, start forming a cabinet, or even carve out an alternate political path if she is unable to assume the top job.

They also worry that those who back Ms. Suu Kyi in the committee may have their voices drowned out. Only seven members of her party sit on the committee, based on proportional representation mirroring that of Myanmar’s Parliament.

Ms. Suu Kyi has, meanwhile, been pushing that her party have more say in the process. In November, she suggested that the government hold four-way talks to discuss amendments to the document, with Myanmar President Thein Sein, Speaker of Parliament Thura Shwe Mann, head of the military Min Aung Hlaing and herself—a proposal that was rejected in favor of keeping to the current parliamentary proceedings.

She has also held rallies across the country, advocating for constitutional changes.

Ms. Suu Kyi enjoys a celebrity-like status across the world. In recent trips overseas she has repeatedly stressed the importance of amending the constitution, what she believes is crucial for Myanmar’s democratic transition and the true test of its reform process.

Her calls have been met with some support. The European Union’s foreign ministers, gathered in Brussels this week, urged Myanmar to continue reforming its electoral system, saying in a joint statement that the country’s constitution should be brought “in line with the requirements of a modern democracy.”

The ministers, hinting that they support her presidential ambitions, added, “The constitution should enable the conduct of credible, transparent and inclusive general and presidential elections in 2015, allowing all candidates to fairly contest the elections.”

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, hasn’t indicated whether it would support the opposition leader’s bid to be able to run, but has said in interviews with local press that they support the country’s democratic transition and will follow the will of the people.

— Naftali Bendavid in Brussels contributed to this article.

Write to Shibani Mahtani at shibani.mahtani@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
The general elections held in Myanmar in November 2010 were considered unrepresentative by Western nations and were boycotted by the country’s largest opposition party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. An earlier version of this article characterized the elections as democratic.

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