Henry Van Thio, of a minority within a minority, for Myanmar Vice-President

Henry Van Thio, the nominee for President of Myanmar. Facebook page of Henry Van Thio

News of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) nomination of U Htin Kyaw for President of Myanmar was made known on Thursday (10 March). He was quickly confirmed as the presidential nominee of the lower house of Parliament in a vote the following day, easily defeating the outgoing vice-president, Sai Mauk Kham, of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. The NLD holds an overwhelming majority in Parliament.

A former driver of Aung San Suu Kyi on occasions, U Htin Kyaw was also a high school classmate of Ms Suu Kyi in Yangon in the late 1950s. He is said to be a trusted advisor within NLD circles, and a senior executive in Ms Suu Kyi’s charitable foundation.

It is clear that U Htin Kyaw’s close personal links to Ms Suu Kyi were the key considerations behind his nomination.

Having been barred from the presidency herself, and failing to strike a deal with the military to remove the barriers she faces to the office, Ms Suu Kyi reverted to her original strategy of nominating a “proxy president”.

Henry Van Thio: as close as it gets to a compromise candidate?

The more interesting development, arguably, was the NLD’s nominee for the post of Vice-President, Henry Van Thio. Like U Htin Kyaw, he easily won the vote in Parliament to confirm him as a nominee for the Vice-Presidency.

An ethnic Chin member of the upper house of Parliament, Henry Van Thio is also Christian, which makes him a candidate from a minority within a minority. According to human rights groups, Chin Christians face persecution in a majority-Buddhist country.

Little was known of him until the day of his nomination, and information on his official parliamentary profile is scant. Some lawmakers complained that they knew nothing about him including, as it appears, some from the NLD, which Henry Van Thio is a member of.

Even more intriguing, perhaps, is his military background. He held the rank of Major in the army of Myanmar, he even had a stint in the civil service during the period of military control. After that, he ran a tobacco factory and worked in a liquor plant.

This makes him a rather unconventional member of the NLD, let alone an elected parliamentarian of the party. It is not clear how he came to join the NLD, just as how other details of his life is unknown.

As a Major in the army, it is not likely that Henry Van Thio was anywhere close to the centre of power in Myanmar, held by the generals. But if the NLD’s nominee for president is clearly loyal or even subordinate to the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Henry Van Thio’s military background seems to be something of a gesture to the generals of today – unclear as it is at the present time.

His status as an ethnic minority perhaps lends some moral pressure in support of his candidacy to the Vice-Presidency. If the parliamentary committee scrutinising his candidacy decides to create barriers on his route to the vice-presidency, that could send a negative signal to the political groupings of ethnic minorities in Parliament that are presently backing the military.