Will Aung San Suu Kyi ever become president of Burma?

File photo: Aung San Suu Kyi smiles at supporters before leaving Shwemawdaw Pagoda at Bago, Burma, 14 August 2011 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Aung San Suu Kyi has become visibly frustrated at the pace of constitutional reform

Given how rapidly things have changed in Burma, the country also known as Myanmar, it's tempting to see further reforms as inevitable. They're not.

On the surface it looks good. Political prisoners have been released and new laws have transformed the country's media landscape and economic prospects.

But scratch a little deeper and reforms are harder to find. The power wielded by Burma's army remains largely untouched, and there's so far been no sign that after decades at the helm the generals are going to start taking orders from civilians.

One of the more public indicators of the difficulties being faced by the reform process is a parliamentary review of the 2008 military-drafted constitution. Last week the 108-member constitutional review committee published its report, having received nearly 30,000 submissions on a broad range of issues.

Barrier to presidency

For Aung San Suu Kyi it makes depressing reading. With next year's election looming the 68-year-old's overriding concern is to get the clause that bars her from becoming president changed.

Written solely with the Nobel prize winner in mind, clause 59F states that the spouse and offspring of a prospective president cannot owe their "allegiance to a foreign power".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption In public, Thein Sein is equivocal on the need for constitutional reform

Having married an Oxford academic, Ms Suu Kyi's two adult sons, Alexander and Kim, are both British, with little appetite for trading in their EU passports.

For the most part the parliamentary report skirts controversy by simply summarising the submissions it received. On Articles 59 and 60 which include the "Suu Kyi clause", for example, it states that 5,740 people had requested that it be amended, 55 that it be added to, 194 that it be removed and 51 that it be retained.

The few recommendations that have been made appear subtly designed to thwart Ms Suu Kyi's ambitions.

Priority should be given to changes that do not need a referendum, the report says (59F does), and also those related to consolidating peace with Burma's many armed ethnic groups.

"This severely hampers [Ms Suu Kyi's] strategy to remove the barrier to her becoming president," says Andrew McLeod, a lecturer in law from Oxford University and the deputy director of the Myanmar Constitutional Reform Project.

"If she continues to campaign on the presidential qualification issue, it could reinforce an impression that she's putting self-interest above the concerns of ethnic groups."

A trap?

With this first committee having taken several months to make its still inconclusive findings another was promptly set up - this time an "implementation" committee, with 31 members, just two of them from Ms Suu Kyi's party.

With her frustration visibly growing, Ms Suu Kyi's thoughts may be returning to the closing months of 2011.

Then, she held a series of meetings with President Thein Sein which culminated in the momentous announcement that for the first time in more than two decades Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), would compete in elections.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Burma's economy has opened up as western countries lifted sanctions

With that decision the Burmese political landscape was transformed and when by-elections were held on the 1 April 2012 Burma's status in the world changed decisively for the better.

Ms Suu Kyi and 42 of her NLD colleagues became members of parliament and a much derided political system could suddenly claim real legitimacy. Sceptics of the reform process around the world had to take a back seat and western countries quickly lifted economic sanctions and began to re-engage diplomatically.

At the time most assumed that in return for handing in her best bargaining chip Ms Suu Kyi had received guarantees from Thein Sein that he would champion the necessary constitutional changes.

So far that has not been the case. In public at least, Thein Sein is equivocal on the need for constitutional reform.

"I would not want restrictions being imposed on the right of any citizen to become the leader of the country," Thein Sein said in early January, before cautioning: "At the same time, we will need to have all necessary measures in place in order to defend our national interests and sovereignty."

Sovereignty is frequently mentioned by those seeking to justify the continued existence of 59F. Without clear direction from the top, and with the army possessing a veto in parliament the chances of a President Suu Kyi any time soon are remote.

"I think she's walked into a trap," David Mathieson, the Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, said.

"I enter into your parliamentary process and legitimise your process, and in return you will amend 59F so I can be considered for president. Two years later that is looking more and more like a trap."