On the Brink of History, Myanmar Awaits Transition to Democracy

The first civilian president since 1962 is set to take over on March 30, but the key question remains what role Aung San Suu Kyi will play in the new dispensation.

President-elect Htin Kyaw, and vice president-elects Myint Swe and Henry Van Thio. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Twitter

President-elect Htin Kyaw, and vice president-elects Myint Swe and Henry Van Thio. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Twitter

Myanmar is rejoicing as a civilian will soon be installed as the next president, even as many regret it will not be Aung San Suu Kyi. Following the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the general elections last November, Htin Kyaw was elected to the highest post by both houses of parliament last week after securing the maximum number of votes among the three candidates. Chief Minister of the Yangon region Myint Swe came second, thus becoming vice president-1. He was sponsored by the military, which has a 25% seat reservation in parliament, and also received support from elected MPs of the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) of outgoing President Thein Sein. This left Henry Van Thio, who was sponsored by the elected members of the upper house, to become vice president-2.

The president-elect and his vice presidents

A trusted aide of Suu Kyi, Htin Kyaw is not one of the more prominent front line NLD leaders. But with veterans like party patron Tin Oo and Win Htein opting out of the race on grounds of old age and ill health, Suu Kyi had to turn to someone younger of whose loyalty she could be certain. Htin Kyaw, her schoolmate, has been a source of constant support to her through her struggle. He holds a double masters in statistics and computer science, and is the son of a well-known poet. Having spent several years in the civil service, he should also be familiar with government administration. In recent years, Htin Kyaw has been looking after the Khin Yi Foundation, named after Suu Kyi’s mother. Suu Kyi has reportedly said he has been chosen for his loyalty, truthfulness and respectable education.

The nomination of former Lt. General Myint Swe by the military caused some disquiet. Known as a protégé of former strongman Than Shwe, Myint Swe headed the military security wing after the purge of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and was also in charge of the Yangon military command when the violent crackdown took place in there during the saffron revolution in 2007. The move could be a way of restoring to him the same nomination of vice presidentship that he was tipped for in 2012 but failed to qualify for due to Article 59(f) (under which Suu Kyi was barred) as his son-in-law was an Australian citizen. With his son-in-law subsequently renouncing his Australian citizenship, Myint Swe become eligible.

It is possible that the present armed forces chief, Min Aung Hlaing, may have favoured the nomination of an officer junior to himself – he is from batch 19 of the Defence Academy and Myint Swe is from batch 15 – but had to defer to a higher advisory from the still influential Than Shwe. Will this be a way for the former strongman to keep open direct lines of communication with the new government following Suu Kyi’s meeting with him in December? Only time will tell.

Henry Van Thio is less known and is from the ethnic Chin state bordering Mizoram in India. A Christian with stints in the military and in civil service, he is a more recent entrant into the NLD but his nomination has been welcomed by the ethnics, who account for over a third of Myanmar’s population.

Suu Kyi’s role and the way ahead

In Myanmar, there is a gap of over four months between the announcement of election results and a new government assuming office. This gives the incoming dispensation ample time to plan its picks for the various offices and envision a programme to be announced on assumption. The new parliament itself is convened after two months and after electing the speakers and forming the various legislative committees it ventures into government formation, which requires its endorsement at different stages.

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

President-elect Htin Kyaw has already submitted a proposal to parliament to trim the number of ministries from 36 to 21, which implements the NLD’s promise to have a lean government. Only one new ministry has been proposed that will be devoted to ethnic affairs, reflective of the NLD’s emphasis on ethnic reconciliation. Several ministries have been combined and instead of six ministers who were attached to President Thein Sein there will be only one.

The next stage will see the president-elect seeking approval for his ministerial team. Most important will be an answer to the still-unresolved question of a formal role for Suu Kyi. In the run up to the elections, she had declared that she will be ‘above the president,’ to assure voters that her leadership will prevail whoever becomes the president. In reality, some mechanism will have to be found where her inputs and directions can feed smoothly into government decision-making. In a system where power is also shared with the military it is she who may have to have regularly dialogue with the armed forces chief to iron out issues.

There is some speculation that Suu Kyi may become the Myanmar’s new foreign minister. This is the only post that will enable her participation in the apex 11-member National Defense and Security Council headed by the president. The Foreign Ministry reportedly also figures on top of all ministries in the list submitted by Htin Kyaw. However, the NLD’s announcement that Suu Kyi will lead the parliament’s international coordination team points differently. With the executive and parliament strictly separated – if she becomes a minister she will have to resign her Parliament seat – conceiving a neat formal role for Suu Kyi that provides freedom of action but does not fall foul of the Constitution or of protocol becomes very challenging. How this will be done and actually implemented will be keenly watched.

The new cabinet will reportedly be broad based, and have experts and ethnic representatives apart from NLD members. Whether more representation will be given to the military besides the constitutionally-guaranteed posts of interior, home affairs and border affairs ministries, and whether the USDP will also be represented remains to be seen. The posts of deputy speakers of parliament have already gone to the USDP and the Arakan National Party, which hold the second largest number of seats in the two houses, even as NLD had the majority to retain these posts within the party.

Attention will also be focused on who will be the Htin Kyaw’s nominees for the chief ministers of the Rakhine and Shan states, in whose assemblies the NLD does not hold a majority. It will be interesting to see if the NLD will follow the earlier practice of the USDP to keep all chief minister posts for itself or if it will meet the demands of the ethnic parties that won more seats in some states.

In an essay written almost three decades ago, Suu Kyi said the people of Myanmar want not just a change of government but a change in political values. It was change that the NLD promised before the elections. On the other hand, President Thein Sein has to be credited for initiating greater openness and reform. His government also delivered on a free and fair election. When Htin Kyaw takes over on March 30 it will be interesting to see how he links the present to a future envisioned by his party and government, and how it would bring about greater reconciliation, reform and development despite constitutional constraints and other challenges.

V. S. Seshadri was India’s ambassador to Myanmar, 2010-2013.

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