On March 15, 2016, members of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union), comprising the Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper house) and the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives), elected the president of Myanmar and two vice presidents. As expected, the National League for Democracy (NLD), by virtue of its more than three-fourths majority, succeeded in pushing through its presidential candidate Htin Kyaw. Aung San Suu Kyi couldn’t make it to the president’s office due to constitutional provisions meant to keep her out.
While Htin Kyaw and Henry Van Teo were nominated by the NLD, General (retired) Myint Swe was nominated by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military). Taking hesitant but small positive steps over the last five years, Myanmar seems to have finally crossed the Rubicon. With the successful and peaceful completion of the presidential election, Myanmar has formally brought its more than half-a-century-old military rule to an end. The long electoral process has finally culminated in Htin Kyaw’s election, as he is set to assume office on April 1, 2016.
Htin Kyaw, the first civilian president since 1962, is not a politician by design or training. He joined the NLD only last year. This also indicates that Suu Kyi had secretly kept him as a back-up in case the closed-door negotiations with the Tatmadaw failed to materialise. That said, Htin Kyaw has deep family links with Myanmar politics. He is the son of the revered Burmese literary figure and academician, the late Min Thu Wun, who had won a seat in the 1990 parliamentary elections on an NLD ticket.
Htin Kyaw is married to Su Su Lwin, NLD MP from Thongwa and the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Lower House. Moreover, he is the son-in-law of U Win, one of the NLD’s founding members. Clearly, a strong political family has made things smoother for Htin Kyaw, who’s also Suu Kyi’s former schoolmate. He has been part of the select set of Suu Kyi’s close confidants. His connection with her is also evident from the fact that he has been the executive committee member of the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a charity organisation named after Suu Kyi’s late mother.
In Htin Kyaw, Suu Kyi seems to have found her second-best option after securing the presidency herself. That, of course, couldn’t happen due to the provisions of Article 59F of the 2008 constitution which prohibits her from contesting for the president’s post. Although constitutional experts, such as Aung Ko, the NLD’s legal expert, did talk of a possible compromise, that couldn’t convince the generals. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi has already said she would be “above the president”. Htin Kyaw’s appointment, especially in the context of the failed negotiations with the Tatmadaw, demonstrates Suu Kyi’s ability to establish herself as a pragmatic politician rather than an idealist advocate of democracy.
Choosing a proxy leader who can be “backseat-driven” is not new in Southeast Asian politics. While leaders such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew had done that to ensure tight control over Singaporean democracy and that Singapore didn’t fall off the economic growth path, Thaksin Shinawatra’s objective was to make sure that, through his sister Yingluck, he remained the key decision-maker in Thailand’s politics. Whether Suu Kyi will prove to be Myanmar’s Lee Kuan Yew, only time will tell. But after accepting the top job, Htin Kyaw said that the victory was “achieved by the goodwill and love of the citizens… in fact, it is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory”. This hinted at Suu Kyi’s political role and the path Myanmar is likely to take.
That the Tatmadaw is relentlessly safeguarding the interests of former generals and protecting its turf is evident from the fact that a close confidant of former General Than Shwe, Myint Swe, was nominated by the military and has been appointed as the first vice president. Myint Swe, a hardline retired officer, was directly involved in the junta’s violent crushing of the 2007 Saffron Revolution led by the Buddhist monks. His record as chief minister of Yangon has been equally disappointing on human rights. It may be noted that in case Htin Kyaw is unable to perform, Myint Swe would assume the presidency. In any case, his role in the National Defence and Security Council is going to be crucial.
Numerous challenges lie ahead for Suu Kyi, Htin Kyaw and the NLD. At the procedural level, Htin Kyaw has to form a cabinet within a few weeks and decide on probable ministers, barring three ministries — border affairs, defence, and home affairs — that are reserved for the military. He has to live with the day-to-day pressures of working under such constraints as well as his lack of experience in running a nascent democratic system. At the same time, every fourth member of parliament will be a military officer.
Htin Kyaw’s task is even more difficult at the substantive level, in terms of meeting the enormous expectations of the Myanmarese people and the international community. This is especially so, given that the new leadership has to deal with Myanmar’s political, strategic, economic and ethnic challenges with a firm yet flexible approach. Cautious optimism is the need of the hour.
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