Why Suu Kyi is No Sonia Gandhi

Aung San Suu Kyi’s transition from peace icon to politician was strategic, pragmatic and singular. How effectively she will manage the affairs of both party and government is a different matter.

File photo of Aung San Suu Kyi campaigning. Credit: Htoo Tay Zar/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

File photo of Aung San Suu Kyi campaigning. Credit: Htoo Tay Zar/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It has become a truth, universally acknowledged, that a party leader who cannot – or chooses not to – directly rule but controls a democratically elected government from behind the scenes will be compared to Sonia Gandhi. Even if the person accused of ‘doing a Sonia’ is a Nobel peace prize winner ushering democracy into her country after almost six decades of military rule. The comparison is both perfunctory and flawed.

Ending almost four months of speculation, rumours, and wild hopes of an Aung San Suu Kyi presidency, the National League for Democracy announced its nominee for the post of the president of Myanmar. The party said that U Htin Kyaw – a long time friend and supporter of Suu Kyi – would be its nominee from the lower house. Following current laws, Henry Van Thio a minority MP of Chin ethnicity was declared as the party’s nominee from the upper house.

The pro-army USDP, which holds a small percentage of seats, also named its two candidates from each house for the post. A vote will take place in a joint sitting of the house for the final list of candidates. Military nominees make up a quarter of the strength of parliament. A second round of voting is likely to take place on Monday. The winner from amongst the three will be named the president and the other two will take on the role of vice presidents.

NLD’s absolute majority in both houses of parliament guarantees its choice of nominees will become the president and the vice president. Barring any last minute hiccups, the stakes are heavily on the side of Htin Kyaw to assume the role of the president-in-name. He will be the Myanmar’s first civilian president, if approved and voted to the position. As per the constitution, the president is required to have a working understanding of the military and have no relatives or family members with foreign citizenship.

The four months since the elections took place in November last year have been spent in trying to figure out a solution around the constitutional bar on a Suu Kyi presidency. As NLD leader, she has maintained that regardless of who assumes the presidency, she will be the power behind the chair. Considering her declaration, the party’s nominee had to be someone with a proven record of loyalty, support and a willingness to come to terms with the fact that his role in the system would be that of a seat warmer for the near future. She was also known to be seeking someone without any connection or record with the military to ensure a complete break from the past.

Htin Kyaw, a school mate, long time colleague and trusted ally fitted the bill. Director of the Daw Khin Kyi foundation, established by Suu Kyi in her mother’s name, Htin Kyaw joined the party officially only two months back. He has a background in economics and computer science and has come to this position with experience as a lecturer and a brief stint in the finance department of the government many years ago. Htin Kyaws wife, Su Su Lwin is an MP with the NLD and both of them are known to be strong supporters of educational and health reforms. His father was considered to be the unofficial poet laureate of Myanmar and his father-in-law was a colleague of Aung San and co-founder of the NLD. Htin Kyaws dedication to democracy, his staunch support for Suu Kyi and publicly declared loyalty to her and the party have ensured that he fits the bill perfectly.

She is expected to take a cabinet position as the foreign minister – in an effort to gain access to an inner coterie of decision makers, primarily from the military, who control the security and administration of the country. She will have to give up her role as the head of the NLD to assume this role. The decision cannot be an easy one.

It was inevitable that there would be comparisons to Sonia Gandhi. This however, is not a case of presenting the crown thrice, and thrice she refused. Suu Kyi has declared her unhappiness with the law that was specifically designed to prevent her from becoming the president. She is, in all manner and qualifications the most suitable person to become the president and lead the party. Her experience, although short is unmatched by anyone else in the NLD, and her ability to work with the military and around it is also valuable. That she is willing to run the country but legally barred from doing so is the exact opposite of the position Sonia Gandhi found herself in in May 2004: as an Indian citizen, there was no legal prohibition on the Congress president becoming prime minister of India; yet, she chose not to led the government, picking, instead, Manmohan Singh as PM.

Suu Kyi’s desire to ensure control over both party and government stems from the harrowing experience of 1990. Soon after her electoral victory that year, her house arrest was extended and the results of the election made null and void. This time around, the party, and Suu Kyi herself have learnt their lessons and are treading softly. Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, retained control over the Congress and over Manmohan in order to hold the reins of control till such time her son could take over and continue the family’s stranglehold on the party.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s dedication to the cause of her people is extraordinary. Her gradual transition from peace icon to politician was strategic, pragmatic, and in many way singular. How effectively she will be able to manage the affairs of both party and government is a different matter.

Priya Ravichandran is with the Takshashila Institution.


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  • ashok759

    The armed forces have allowed a remarkable transition of power to a popularly elected civilian government. They might wish to take the process to its logical conclusion by permitting the minor constitutional change that allows this great woman to formally assume the presidency.