Having made no deal with the generals, Aung San Suu Kyi now more powerful

Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/CC BY 2.0


Yesterday afternoon (15 March), Htin Kyaw became the first civilian leader of Myanmar since 1962, the year that the military took control of the country then known as Burma, and ruled it with an iron fist ever since. He garnered 360 out of the 652 votes cast in both houses of the parliament of Myanmar.

Myint Swe, the military-backed candidate, garnered 213 votes, the second most votes, and will be the first vice-president. The candidate with 79 votes, the National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker and ethnic Chin politician, Henry Van Thio, will be the second vice-president.

Little was known about Htin Kyaw, now president-elect, before last week when his nomination was made known by the NLD. The common description of him in the international media as the driver of Aung San Suu Kyi upset some supporters.

In fact, he is a writer and scholar who comes from a distinguished political family. His father had won a seat in the 1990 elections, and his father-in-law is a co-founder of the NLD with Ms Suu Kyi. He was only an occasional driver of Ms Suu Kyi, rather than being her official chauffeur.

But the point is clear – the person entrusted with Ms Suu Kyi’s life, trusted to drive her around and to ensure her security, is the loyal presidential candidate that she has long been talking about.

Since she failed to make a deal with General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar, to remove the constitutional hurdles for her to assume the presidency herself, she reverted to her previous position of being “above the president”, vowing to nominate a “proxy president” who would be subservient to her.

Htin Kyaw is a political greenhorn himself. He is not a member of parliament, although he is a member of the NLD. He has never run for an election before. He has probably also never given a political speech in his life, despite his family’s intrinsic connection with Myanmar politics.

But expect further conflict between NLD and military

Ms Suu Kyi’s failure to secure the presidency herself had left her supporters disappointed, both in Myanmar and around the world. However, they have many reasons to celebrate.

Because she did not cut a deal with the generals in order to win the presidency, she is now not encumbered by any political compromises, and can act more freely. Given this turn of events, she will indeed be more powerful than if she were to have assumed the presidency herself.

The speculation was that the generals wanted the NLD to relinquish their chief ministerships of two sensitive key states in Myanmar. They also probably wanted to secure some sort of amnesty for themselves, from being prosecuted for crimes committed during the period of military rule. All of these would have seriously undermined Ms Suu Kyi’s moral authority, if not political support.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how Ms Suu Kyi and her NLD law makers run the country, given their overwhelming presence in parliament. The military still retains 25% of seats in both houses of parliament, which are not up for election. They still continue to hold many important levers in government. For instance, one of the two vice-presidents is loyal to the military, and may provide a lot of resistance to Htin Kyaw and Ms Suu Kyi.

The parliamentary committee whose role was to scrutinise the presidential candidates is still dominated by the military, thus giving it the reins over who can or cannot be the next president.

All of which means there could be even more conflict between the NLD and the military, going forward – perhaps more so than in the previous parliament, where the NLD occupied a minuscule proportion of seats.