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A Big Disappointment for Democratic Hopes in Myanmar

A Big Disappointment for Democratic Hopes in Myanmar

With a vote in parliament on Thursday, Myanmar shut down any remaining hopes that iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be able to run for president later this year, in just the latest sign that the country’s supposed “democratic transition” has stalled.

After three days of debate, the legislature voted down proposed changes to Myanmar’s constitution, which bans people with foreign spouses or children from running for president. The measure clearly targets Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose sons are British, as was her late husband.

Unsurprisingly, the military bloc that still dominates Myanmar’s parliament also voted to keep its control over any proposed changes to the 2008 constitution, which was drafted before Myanmar’s generals handed power to a nominally civilian government in 2011.

The initial fast pace of Myanmar’s reforms after that handover, with Aung San Suu Kyi winning a parliamentary seat in a 2012 by-election, raised hopes that the country also known as Burma was on a road to real democratic government. The European Union, the United States, and others that had considered Myanmar a pariah during its decades of military rule lifted sanctions against the land of golden pagodas. But though general elections are scheduled for November, reforms have now stalled, many political prisoners remain in jail, and ethnic violence is rampant, particularly against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in the country’s northwest.

Thursday’s vote was the latest sign of what leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama have called Myanmar’s “backslide.” Along with confirming the bar against an Aung San Suu Kyi presidential run, the parliament voted against changing the number of votes needed to make constitutional amendments. The current constitution requires that the military hold at least 25 percent of parliamentary seats, and conveniently for the generals, it also requires more than 75 percent approval to change the constitution, giving the military effective veto power.

A proposal to change the threshold needed for amendments to 70 percent could have made all the difference in ending the military’s dominance. But that would have required the military voting to reduce its own power — something that, at least for now, it’s apparently not ready to do.

Phyo Hein Kyaw/AFP/Getty Images