Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be president in Myanmar!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Myanmar on March 15 started its presidential election in the Union Parliament comprising two Houses. The country’s new president will be elected among three vice presidents. Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has named its candidates to be president, confirming that its elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi is not a contender. The three vice presidents are U Htin Kyaw of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, who was elected by the group of presidential electoral college of the House of Representatives (Lower House), U Henry Van Htee Yu also from NLD, who was elected by the House of Nationalities (Upper House), and U Myint Swe from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), who was directly assigned by the military.
The candidate thought most likely to become president, Htin Kyaw, is a close aide. It is however of no consequence as to who win the presidency as Suu Kyi still control the president and his powers. Ms Suu Kyi failed to persuade the military to allow a clause barring her from the presidency to be overruled. But she has vowed to lead from the sidelines instead.
Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will control parliament, although a quarter of the seats as well as key government ministries remain in the hands of the military. One of the new parliament’s first jobs will be to choose a president to replace Thein Sein who steps down at the end of March. Ms Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest by the army rulers, is constitutionally barred from standing because her sons are British not Burmese. There was speculation that a deal may have been done with the military to allow her to take the job
The new government will take power on 1 April – the first freely elected government after more than 50 years of military rule and then five years of military-backed civilian government.
The generals’ inflexibility, in the face of a huge popular mandate, has set the tone for what looks likely to be a period of confrontation between them and the newly elected democrats. It was in November last year that Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept the board in the long-awaited general election.
The NLD won nearly 80% of the contested seats and everyone, even the army, agreed that the Burmese people had not just voted for change, they had voted for Suu Kyi to lead. Emboldened by the result, the former political prisoner reached out to her long-time adversaries. In the past four months she has held three meetings with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Suu Kyi was exploring the possibility of a grand deal. What the NLD leader needed was the army’s approval for a legally dubious move. She wanted parliament to temporarily suspend the part of the constitution that bars her from becoming president.
The NLD won the majority of non-military seats available in parliament in last year’s historic general election, although the army – which still controls a quarter of all parliamentary seats and key security ministries – remains a significant force in Burmese politics. The NLD, which won a landslide in November, has named Htin Kyaw as its lower house nominee for vice president, and Henry Van Thio, an MP from the Chin ethnic minority, as its upper house nominee. Both houses will choose between the NLD’s candidates and those from other parties, but because the NLD holds a majority in both houses, its candidates are likely to be chosen. The winner from each house will then enter a second vote to decide the president of the country. A military nominated candidate will also compete in this vote. The two losing candidates will become vice-presidents.
Suu Kyi tried right to the last. But there was no deal. Despite a huge win in the election, Aung San Suu Kyi failed to convince the army that her destiny was the presidency. Clause 59F of the constitution which bars her because her sons have British not Burmese passports remains in place, and she has now chosen someone else. It’s Htin Kyaw, who she’s known all her life. He’s a committed member of the party and was by her side when Ms Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010. His most important quality may be the ability to take orders.
Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that though she does not have the title – she will still be in charge. Ms Suu Kyi’s close aide Htin Kyaw, 70, is a quietly spoken man who attended university in the UK. He has a reputation for honesty and loyalty, and has kept a low profile. His father, the writer and poet Min Thu Wun, won a seat for the party at the 1990 election. His wife, Su Su Lwin, is the daughter of an NLD founder, as well as being a sitting MP, and a prominent party member. He has played a senior role at the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, the charity founded in honour of Suu Kyi’s late mother, and has been frequently seen at the NLD leader’s side, serving as her driver from time to time.
The chances of Aung San Suu Kyi becoming Myanmar’s next president have been receding for months. But as parliament puts forward its nominations for the top job, the situation is clear: there will be no last-minute deal, no President Suu Kyi. Those expecting a Nelson Mandela ending to this incredible story will be disappointed. But for Suu Kyi and her many supporters little has actually been lost. This anticlimactic outcome strengthens her politically and diminishes the military in the eyes of the Burmese people.
Clause 59F famously disqualifies anyone whose spouse, children, and even spouses of children, have foreign passports. Suu Kyi’s two children by Oxford academic Michael Aris are British. Supporters of the clause say it protects the country’s sovereignty, but many believe it was drafted by the military to close the door on Suu Kyi. To open that door, the Burmese army would have demanded concessions. That could have meant giving the military the right to choose the chief ministers of several states, and securing promises that the army’s many business interests would be left alone.
So what, then, will the new political landscape of Burma look like?
Suu Kyi famously said before the election that she would be “above” whoever she picks to be president. All Suu Kyi will have to do is pick up a phone to flex her presidential power by proxy. She has lost nothing there. Unencumbered by any deal with the army, Suu Kyi will be freer to pursue her campaign platform from the 2015 election. Her authority is unchallenged within her party and she will now remotely command both presidency and parliament. One of her priorities is likely to be a renewed bid to change the constitution to reduce the army’s power.
The unelected army representatives have already sampled the new order. Suu Kyi’s MPs are demanding that deals made by the army and the former government be re-examined. In a rare moment of drama, all the men in green uniform stood up in the house in protest. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Suu Kyi spoke of being inclusive and creating a government of national unity. That was before the army rejected her overtures. It is expected that the government Suu Kyi leads will be a mix of NLD officials and technocrats.
The 2008 constitution will be the main limit on Suu Kyi’s power. Drafted by the generals, and approved in a sham referendum, it ensures the military retains its political role. The key security ministries (home, defence, border affairs) are appointed not by the president but by the army commander-in-chief. A quarter of the seats in parliament are also reserved for soldiers. That is not enough for them to block legislation, but sufficient to scupper any attempts to amend their constitution. Most importantly, the military is almost certain to have insisted that attempts to chip away at its political power be put on the back burner. So beneath the feel-good headline of “President Suu Kyi”, the army would have consolidated its political role. It’s not clear why the grand deal didn’t happen. Perhaps the army just couldn’t stomach the idea, or maybe Suu Kyi refused to concede enough. For whatever reason, the talks broke down.
Much has changed in Myanmar, but the Burmese army has not budged one inch from the red lines it put into the constitution. The democratic experiment, economic reforms and the emboldened Suu Kyi remain in a controlled space that the military designed and now seem intent on preserving. Myanmar’s independence hero, Gen Aung San, assassinated in July 1947 when Suu Kyi was only two years old was her father. From 1964, studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, where she met her future husband, academic Michael Aris. She returned to Rangoon in 1988 to look after her critically ill mother during the midst of a campaign for democratic reform.
Suu Kyi organised rallies and travelled around the country, calling for peaceful democratic reform and free elections. Demonstrations brutally suppressed by the army, which seized power in a coup in September 1988, placing Suu Kyi under house arrest the following year. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a national election in 1990 – but the military junta refused to relinquish power. Suu Kyi spent protracted periods under house arrest until she was finally released unconditionally in 2010. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She led the NLD to a majority win in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years in November 2015.
Suu Kyi will control both the parliament and presidency without being the country’s president.