Myanmar’s next president

NLD presidential nominee U Htin Kyaw. Photo by AAP.

NLD presidential nominee U Htin Kyaw. Photo by AAP.

Trevor Wilson on the country’s likely leaders and how they are likely to lead.

On 11 March, Myanmar’s houses of parliament endorsed both National League for Democracy (NLD) nominees for the next Myanmar presidency: U Htin Kyaw, representing the People’s Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw); and Henry Van Thio, an ethnic Chin representing the Upper House (Amyotha Hluttaw).

They defeated nominees of the opposition Union State and Development Party (USDP), U Khin Aung Myint, a retired general and previous Upper House Speaker; and the current Vice President, Shan doctor Sai Mauk Kham.

After receiving the formal nomination from the Army – which has not yet disclosed the name of its nominee, the combined Union Assembly (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) will vote in the next few days on who will be president. The nominee with the most votes will secure the role, and given the NLD numbers in the larger People’s Assembly this is expected to be U Htin Kyaw, with the other two becoming Vice Presidents. They will then be sworn in to pave the way for the formal transfer of power to the incoming NLD Government on 1 April.

An economist by training, with university degrees from the Yangon Institute of Economics and the University of London, U Htin Kyaw is a long-time executive assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi and manager of her NLD office in Yangon. He has essentially fulfilled support roles in the NLD for many years and has not previously sought public office.

For example, he is not a member of the NLD Central Executive Committee (CEC), which might be a presentational advantage allowing both him and NLD CEC members some freedom of manoevre. He is a person of the utmost integrity, and is quite well known and widely respected inside Myanmar, though less well-known internationally. He would have had considerable exposure to a wide range of political situations, and probably represents a choice nobody would object to. His loyalty to Aung San Suu Kyi is beyond doubt, and he would understand her thinking better than most.

For many years, he has served as Executive Officer of the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a charity named for the late mother of Aung San Suu Kyi.

A writer, U Htin Kyaw many years ago worked as a Myanmar civil servant, and was also a university lecturer. His wife Daw Su Su Lwin, daughter of the former NLD Spokesman U Lwin, was elected as an NLD member of parliament in 2012, was re-elected in 2015, and was recently appointed chair of the People’s Assembly International Relations Committee. She visited Australia as a member of a high-level education delegation in October 2013.

U Htin Kyaw is likely to be a ceremonial president rather than an executive president like his predecessor Thein Sein. This is not an unusual arrangement at all. He can be expected to heed Aung San Suu Kyi’s wishes as the leader of the party which won the most seats in the November 2015 elections.

But whether or not he will refrain from demonstrating independent thinking, or whether or not this would present a problem for the NLD government, remains to be seen. Whatever happens, it is hard to imagine their relationship souring after such a long, close partnership.

Henry Van Thio is likely to be one of two vice presidents. He was elected for the first time as a Chin National Party member from Shan State for the Upper House in 2015. A Baptist and former member of the Army, he is regarded as representing ethnic groups in the presidency. He is not especially well known, but is obviously close to the NLD who nominated him as their Vice Presidential candidate.

The nominee from the Army will reportedly be General (ret) Myint Swe, until recently Chief Minister of Yangon Region, and who was previously Head of Military Security in the army. Myint Swe was the Army nominee as Vice President in 2012, but his nomination had to be withdrawn when it was revealed that his son had taken out Australian citizenship. His son has apparently now returned to Myanmar and regained his Myanmar citizenship. Myint Swe is often described as a hardliner, and he would have the respect of the army leadership. He is certainly a stalwart defender of the Army’s interests.

Prevented under Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution from becoming president, Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to be appointed to a position in the incoming NLD government. What this position would be is not yet clear, but it will presumably not be a mere ministerial appointment. She could be appointed as a Coordinating Minister for more than one portfolio, or possibly even Prime Minister)

All of these matters were presumably agreed in the recent negotiations between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, whose term as Commander-in-Chief was recently extended by another five years, suggesting that his authority in the army has been consolidated. This could portend reasonably cooperative relations between the NLD Government and the army for the term of the new parliament.

The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi will not be president immediately is not necessarily a major problem, although it vividly demonstrates the shortcomings of the current constitution. It is not yet clear, whether or not – or when – the army might be prepared to allow amendments to it.

In the meantime, since the constitution was drawn up under the former military regime and represents the army’s bottom line, it continues to provide the basis for some political stability. Understandably, both the NLD Government and various ethnic groups regard some aspects of the present constitution to be unsatisfactory, and may be frustrated by any reluctance to change it.

However, the Army may need satisfactory assurances in respect of its priorities of national cohesion and internal security before it would contemplate constitutional amendments. That would presumably necessitate finalising a nationwide peace agreement that ends insurgency, a considerable challenge for a country that has never been free of insurgency in its 65 years of independence. It might also require a period without the threat of sort of communal violence that overwhelmed Myanmar in 2012.

Trevor Wilson is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change, ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

This article is a collaboration between New Mandala and Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s premier website for policy analysis and discussion.