Burma's pseudo-civilian president, Thein Sein, held his first
press conference for local media on Sunday, after he was
re-elected last week as the chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development
Party (USDP). The USDP took about 80 percent of the
seats in the 2010 elections that critics have condemned
as a farce.
Thein Sein avoided breaking any news, and gave broadly worded
answers about the ongoing war in Kachin State, the highly anticipated foreign
investment law, the possibility of U.S.-Burma military relations, and so forth.
One of the answers that struck me, however, touched upon his relationship with
the USDP. He was asked if he will urge his party's parliamentarians to amend
the country's constitution. Thein Sein responded: "As the constitution
prohibits the president from taking part in [their] party's activities during
his term of office, I can't go and urge them what to do. The constitutional
amendment issue depends not only on the parliamentarians of the USDP but also
on other parties."
Essentially he dodged the question, but his answer has
interesting political implications. Let me highlight three issues that I think
First, viewed according to the 2008 Constitution, the
unanimous re-election of Thein Sein as a chairman of the USDP on
October 16 was unconstitutional. The director of the president's office defended the re-election of his boss as the
head of the USDP as "in line with the constitution," so long as Thein Sein is "not
involved in the party function." But this is a pretty lame defense. How can
anyone possibly say that the president attending the USDP's annual conference
was not also participating in the party's activities? Thein Sein was there
greeting hundreds of delegates and giving speeches. He didn't just stop by and
say hi to folks on his way home from the neighborhood gym.
Second, Thein Sein's answer at the press conference revised
the much-hyped PR message that he was putting across during his recent interview with BBC's Hardtalk.
Thein Sein said that he "would accept" Aung San Suu Kyi as president if the
people accept her. But the constitution bars Suu Kyi from seeking the
presidential nomination, since the candidate can neither be a foreign citizen
nor have parents, legitimate children, or a spouse who hold foreign
citizenship. Suu Kyi was married to a British academic and has two sons who
hold British citizenship.
In his Hardtalk
interview, however, Thein Sein implied that he would not mind seeing her as
president. There is no doubt that the interview has triggered waves of hope
(most likely false hope) among the observers and general public in Burma. Even
Suu Kyi weighed in to respond to Thein Sein's remark. In a press conference,
that she is willing to lead the country as president and that her party will
work to amend the constitution that blocks her from the position. Amending any
of these provisions, however, requires the approval of more than 75 percent of
parliament as well as a national referendum. Since the military has 25 percent
of seats reserved in parliament, there is no way for to Suu Kyi to change the
conditions without military approval even if her party won the available 75
percent of seats in the upcoming 2015 election. Currently her party only
represents less than 7 percent in parliament. Thus, Suu Kyi seemed to be expecting the president to use his influence
to make the necessary constitutional changes. But now, in his answer to a local
journalist's question, Thein Sein has changed his previous message, refused to take
any initiative, and passed the buck back to "the people."
The third significant implication of Thein Sein's reference
to constitutional provisions disassociating him from his party is that it
explains why Thein Sein has managed to pursue the ongoing liberalizing reforms.
Those who are elected president or are given cabinet positions are not
officially accountable to the USDP. They don't have to feel direct constraints
imposed by the USDP. They don't need to follow the USDP agenda. They are not
implementing the USDP's party policy.
This is significant because the USDP is much more
conservative than President Thein Sein and his team. The USDP, correctly
foreseeing that the Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party would
do well in the 2012
by-elections, had opposed holding them. It also pushed to
amend the constitution to allow executive officials, most of whom were USDP
members, to retain their party affiliation. But the president managed to kill
such initiatives because he wanted to hold by-elections as a proof of his
reforms to attract the West.
Aung Thein Linn, one of the top former USDP leaders and
chairman of the party's Rangoon Division, told Chinese media that some of the president's
critical decisions were nothing more than "his own idea, not a resolution by
the parliament." He continued to say that the party opposes the president's
decision. "He (Thein Sein) trie[d] to sever the ties between China and Myanmar
[Burma]," said Aung Thein Linn. Aung Thein Linn was later forced to resign for making
comments against in Thein Sein and Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
In this regard, the USDP is a party that won the 2010
election, but not a ruling-party. While that makes Thein Sein rely mostly on
technocrats for his policy initiatives, the same detachment frustrates those
who are in the line-up for 2015 election. The institutional set-up of the
constitution allows Thein Sein to be able pursue a "reform agenda" without
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