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Suu Kyi in Myanmar’s driving seat, but no easy ride

world Updated: Mar 16, 2016 12:04 IST
Rezaul H Laskar
Htin Kyaw

Htin Kyaw, left, newly elected president of Myanmar, walks with National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, at Myanmar's parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.(AP)

Four months before her confidante Htin Kyaw was elected Myanmar’s first civilian president in decades, Aung San Suu Kyi made it clear who would be the real power in the country’s new democratic government.

Suu Kyi, herself barred from becoming president under a constitutional clause which states that anyone whose children are foreign nationals cannot hold the post, said in November a president will be appointed “just to meet requirements of constitution”.

“He will have to understand this perfectly well that he will have no authority, that he will act in accordance with the decisions of the party,” she told Channel NewsAsia in an interview.

She also told the BBC at the same time she would be “making all the decisions as the leader” of the National League for Democracy, which bagged two-thirds of the contested seats in the two houses of parliament in the general election held in November.

Htin Kyaw’s remarks soon after being elected by more than half the 652 votes cast in the two houses of parliament on Tuesday made it clear who the real boss is. “Victory! This is sister Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory,” he said.

Such an arrangement is not unusual or new in South Asian countries. While the UPA was power in India during 2004-2014, Congress president Sonia Gandhi was clearly the power behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Pakistan People’s Party chief Asif Ali Zardari was clearly the person driving the decisions when his party was in power from 2008 to 2013.

The arrangement in Myanmar was worked out after Suu Kyi, 70, was unable to hammer out an understanding with the military that would allow her to become president. Both her sons are British citizens and the NLD, despite its sweeping victory, does not currently have the backing of 75% of the MPs that is needed to amend the Constitution.

In many ways, Htin Kyaw appears to be the perfect candidate for the role that Suu Kyi has in mind. The first civilian president after more than five decades of military rule is a soft-spoken, Britain-educated economist and scholar who has always kept a low profile.

A former classmate of Suu Kyi, 70-year-old Htin Kyaw is perceived as a trusted confidant of the NLD chief and sometimes drove her around, leading to exaggerated portrayals in the media as Suu Kyi’s “driver”.

Suu Kyi remains the most popular leader in Myanmar and is thus unlikely to face any real challenge from someone like Htin Kyaw.

Though Suu Kyi has clearly placed herself in the driving seat, she is confronted with formidable challenges.

The country’s economy has expanded at a robust pace – the International Monetary Fund has forecast an 8.4% increase in GDP for 2016 - but it could be hit by the global decline in prices of natural gas, a major export from Myanmar. The economic and financial infrastructure is outdated and the country has no credit rating.

Suu Kyi has faced considerable criticism for her handling of communal tensions between the majority Buddhist community and the minority Muslims, especially human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. An estimated 100,000 Rohingyas have fled the country since the violence erupted four years ago.

Besides, the powerful military or Tatmadaw will continue to have a say in governance through its efforts to achieve what it refers to as a “disciplined democracy”. It wants, as one expert put it, a government with a “civilian face” while fully preserving its “strong prerogatives”.

Former military intelligence chief Myint Swe, a supporter of former junta leader Than Shwe who has been blacklisted by the US treasury department, was elected the vice president on Tuesday. The military will also nominate the home affairs, border affairs and defence ministers and have a majority in the National Defence and Security Council.

The military has also reserved for itself 25% of the seats in parliament, meaning no government can amend the Constitution without its approval.

All of which is bound to ensure that India will have to strike a cautious balance in dealing with the military, which has helped crack down on Indian militants hiding in Myanmar, and the Suu Kyi’s civilian government.