Aung San Suu Kyi, the Prime Minister above the President

Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons

By Loke Hoe Yeong

A day after Myanmar’s first civilian president in more than 50 years was sworn in, the new government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) tabled a bill in Parliament to create a new, powerful ministerial position for Aung San Suu Kyi that has been described as akin to that of prime minister in other countries. The bill will be debated later today (1 April).

The creation of such a position by law appears to be a move by the NLD to legitimise their party leader’s exercise of power within the incoming government. Since at least the November 2015 general election, Ms Suu Kyi has consistently said that she would be “above the president”, and to rule by proxy, if she herself would continue to be disqualified from the presidency due to the foreign citizenship of her late husband and her two sons.

It has been the subject of chatter as to how she intends to exercise her power “above the president”, and how that could be secured, to minimise the potential for political instability, or be institutionalised.

Already, Ms Suu Kyi has been slated to head the portfolios of foreign affairs, energy and education in the new government, as well as taking the position of minister in the president’s office.

The new, prime ministerial position, officially to be called “state counsellor”, has thus been read as a consolidation of those portfolios. Put another way, as by the BBC, this new role is an attempt to protect Ms Suu Kyi from any accusations that she is acting unconstitutionally by taking on so much power.

Why the new, super role?

There are perhaps other motivations too for Ms Suu Kyi to take on this new, super role.

Taking on a position in the government of Myanmar would require Ms Suu Kyi to cease her involvement in NLD party activities – a constitutional requirement set by Myanmar’s military generals, which means Ms Suu Kyi would have to resign her leadership of the NLD at the very least, as well as to relinquish her seat in Parliament.

However, some who had seen the draft bill have reported that the new position of “state counselor” would preserve Ms Suu Kyi’s links to Parliament, through the requirement for her to report her work to Parliament.

Nonetheless, for Ms Suu Kyi to resign the leadership of the NLD could be a rather precarious situation indeed, both for herself and the stability of the party in government. A hypothetical power struggle within the ranks of the NLD, for instance, would throw the government off track, as well as derail the whole roadmap towards the further democratisation of Myanmar.

Not much is known about the decision-making processes of the NLD, as it is well known that power – and secrets – are kept within a very tight coterie of confidantes around Ms Suu Kyi.

One of those confidantes is Htin Kyaw, who was entrusted enough to be nominated for the presidency by the NLD. He was sworn in as Myanmar’s new president on Wednesday (30 March).

In his speech, Htin Kyaw noted the challenges ahead for the country, including the need for a nationwide ceasefire with various ethnic groups, as well as about how the constitution complying with modern democratic values. It included a hint that there would be some legislative activity to remove the constitutional clause that bars Ms Suu Kyi from the presidency.

Also sworn in, in a joint session of Parliament, were the new cabinet ministers, most of whom are NLD members.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s schedule, from now on

The ministerial portfolios identified for Ms Suu Kyi are key ones – and they are rather time-consuming ones to manage.

In practical terms, it is uncertain how Ms Suu Kyi plans to exercise her power over these ministries. According to a commentary by the BBC, it would mean that she can show up only one day in a week for each of these ministries. Even with a capable and well-oiled team in each of those ministries, that BBC commentary noted that “it’s hardly a platform to deliver much-needed ambitious change.”

The military retains a quarter of the seats in Parliament. They will also head three key ministries in the new government – that of defence, home affairs and border affairs.