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Analysis

Suu Kyi courts military with eye on presidency

YANGON, Myanmar - Former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi is seeking support from Myanmar military officials for a constitutional change that would allow her to become president, according to senior members of her party.

"She's talking sweet to the army," Win Htein, a National League for Democracy lawmaker, said in an interview. Tin Oo, a former commander-in-chief who founded the NLD with Suu Kyi, said she's convincing the military to "gradually become civilized in accordance with democracy."

"She doesn't go around the town and shout," Tin Oo, 86, said in the party's Yangon headquarters. "She's not like that. She will work very brilliantly, effectively and very quietly."

Suu Kyi, 67, is ineligible to become head of state under Myanmar's constitution, which says the president and two vice presidents can't have a child who is the citizen of a foreign country. The 2008 constitution automatically grants the military a quarter of seats in parliament and amendments need more than 75 percent of votes to pass.

Suu Kyi's NLD expects a victory in 2015 elections after winning 43 of 44 seats in by-elections last year, which may give its lawmakers enough votes to elect the president. The party has no clear alternative to Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest and rejoined the political process after holding talks with President Thein Sein two years ago following an election ending five decades of direct military rule.

"2015 is the first and last chance for her to become the president," Ohn Kyaing, the NLD's spokesman, said in Naypyidaw last week. "Next time, in 2020, she will be very old to work. Therefore, if we want her to become leader in 2015 we have to rewrite this constitution."

Suu Kyi has toured the world since joining parliament last April, including a trip to Europe during which she collected the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991. Barack Obama hailed her "unbreakable courage and determination" during a visit to her home in November.

Suu Kyi has said little about ethnic conflicts involving Muslim Rohingyas and Kachin rebels since taking office, apart from offering her assistance as a mediator. Her assistant didn't respond to an interview request.

Suu Kyi last month said she was "fond" of the military, which her father General Aung San played a role in founding in the 1940s when he led troops in a revolt against Japanese occupiers. He was assassinated in 1947, when Suu Kyi was two years old. More than 20 years later, she married Englishman Michael Aris and had two boys who are British citizens.

"The members of our military, like the rest of our nation, would like to see Burma a happier, stronger, more harmonious country," Suu Kyi said in a Jan. 25 appearance at the East-West Center in Hawaii, referring to the country by its former name. "And because of that I do not rule out the possibility of amendment through negotiated compromise. In fact, that is the way I want to go."

Thein Sein has no position on changes to the constitution and would support whatever parliament decides, Ye Htut, his spokesman, said by phone. His Union Solidarity and Development Party also takes no position, lawmaker Win Myint said by phone. He noted that the rule affecting Suu Kyi has been in previous Myanmar constitutions and was used last year to block the vice- presidential nomination of Myint Swe, a military officer.

So far Suu Kyi appears to be "doing quite well" in convincing the military she doesn't pose a threat, according to Hans Vriens, managing partner of Vriens & Partners, a Singapore- based political risk firm.

"As long as she doesn't go after the military and after their past behavior, she's fine," Vriens said. "The moment she would do that then she crosses a really red line and they would not allow that."

Pictures of both Aung San and his daughter hang throughout the NLD headquarters, where tourists stop daily to talk with party members and purchase T-shirts and other souvenirs featuring Suu Kyi. The NLD in the coming weeks will hold its first Congress since its founding 25 years ago to transform from a centralized body to one in which leaders are chosen from local elections.

The party's reliance on Suu Kyi and the disarray caused by the detention of senior leaders in the decades since 1988 have left the NLD without a clear successor, said Win Tin, 83, a senior party member. She doesn't always keep top leaders informed of her interaction with the military, he said.

"We don't know how much she's got assurances from the military," Win Tin said in Yangon last week. "She is so powerful and so popular and so influential, we don't know how the military will approach her."

Even while under house arrest, Suu Kyi asserted her influence over the party. NLD leaders planned to participate in the 2010 elections before she sent a message through her lawyer that she opposed the move, according to Than Nyein, a former committee member.

He helped form a new party called the National Democratic Force to compete in the election, which NLD leaders saw as a betrayal. It now wants to change the voting rules to proportional representation, which favors smaller parties.

"If there is a landslide win by the NLD in the 2015 election, there's every danger that the whole process may go back to the beginning," Than Nyein said. The military rejected the results of 1990 elections when the NLD won about 80 percent of seats.

On Yangon's tree-lined streets, where bumper-to-bumper traffic exemplifies the economic gains since Myanmar's political opening, sales of Suu Kyi pictures and biographies that were banned two years ago are a sign of her enduring popularity.

"She's in parliament, so she has no choice but to be friendly with the military," said Myo Min Htwe, a bookseller. "People still support her as a very good leader. She's the hope of the country."

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