By Shibani Mahtani, NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (WSJ): Opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi stated unequivocally Thursday that she wants to run for president of Myanmar, reaffirming she will work to change the country’s military-drafted constitution that currently prevents her from taking the top role.
“I want to run for president and I’m quite frank about it,” said Ms. Suu Kyi, speaking at a panel during the World Economic Forum East Asia meetings in the country’s capital of Naypyitaw. “If I pretended that I didn’t want to be president, I wouldn’t be honest.”
The panel, a debate hosted by BBC World, was the first time the opposition leader—who founded and heads Myanmar’s National League for Democracy—has been so clear about her political intentions.
Ms. Suu Kyi is admired in a nation being transformed by a nominally civilian government after decades of military rule. Her NLD party won almost every seat in last year’s by-elections, and photos of her are hung in houses even in the most remote villages across the country.
Myanmar’s constitution, as it stands, includes a clause that prevents anyone with foreign family members from becoming the country’s president. Both of Ms. Suu Kyi’s sons are British. The reformist government, though, has pledged to rework the document to allow her to run for the job.
But Ms. Suu Kyi has been subjected to unusual criticism in recent months by human rights groups, which contend her presidential ambitions have deterred her from speaking out against deadly sectarian violence between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims plaguing the nation.
Continuing tensions between the two religious groups have spread from the western Rakhine state across other areas of the country, leaving hundreds dead and thousands of Muslims displaced.
“Nobody seems to be very satisfied with me because I am not taking sides,” said Ms. Suu Kyi, though she stressed the need for rule of law as the most immediate priority for peace between the country’s disparate ethnic and religious groups.
“Everyone must be entitled to security under the present administration,” she added, going on to describe the difficulty of normalizing relations with Muslims in Myanmar as “big and complicated.”
Last week, Ms. Suu Kyi criticized a policy proposed by local leaders in Rakhine state to impose a two-child limit on Rohingya Muslims, saying it was “illegal” if it were implemented.
In response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, Ye Htut, a spokesperson for President Thein Sein, said the central government was “reviewing the situation” of birth limits in the state, adding that local leaders in the state could have misinterpreted the government’s suggested reproductive health programs which provides people in rural areas with greater access to contraceptives.
Thursday’s debate—which included U Soe Thein, a former general and a minister in the office of President Thein Sein, and a former political prisoner—was the first time Ms. Suu Kyi has publicly debated a high-ranking government minister. Both accepted questions from people around the world through social media sites like Facebook.
U Soe Thein, the point person for most foreign investors in Myanmar and one of the key faces in Mr. Thein Sein’s regime, twice referred to Ms. Suu Kyi as his “elder sister” and cracked jokes with the democracy champion once confined to house arrest by his fellow generals.
“We were in the dark ages for 60 years,” said Mr. Soe Thein. “It is time to untie the rope.”
The panel was a testament to how far Myanmar’s reform process has come even in the past year. The last World Economic Forum in East Asia, held in Bangkok, was the first time Ms. Suu Kyi spoke overseas, after she was allowed to travel for the first time following her years under house arrest.
Ms. Suu Kyi continued to be cautiously optimistic about Myanmar’s future, but criticized its judiciary for “not being independent” and labeled the previous military government’s decision to change the country’s name in the early 1990s from “Burma” to “Myanmar” as “dishonest.”
“The reason why I stick to the name Burma is because the country was not changed in the will of the people,” said Ms. Suu Kyi. “There is something intrinsically dishonest about the change of name—there is the implication that Myanmar refers to all the ethnic people of Burma, which it does not.”
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