U Htin Kyaw is the president of Myanmar’s first civilian government following 56 years of military junta rule, but all eyes remain on Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to lead the country. While she is likely to accept and play that role, as per the wishes of her people, the hope for a true democracy lies instead in her will and ability to develop new leaders and a successor.
Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, is the world’s best-known living “icon of democracy,” and is revered in her country for enduring house arrest for decades and never bowing down to military generals. Her father, General Aung San, was an icon of Myanmar’s freedom movement against Britain.
It is natural for Myanmar’s people to see her as “the” leader. But it’s advisable for Suu Kyi to deflect attention away from herself and project other trustworthy people in her party as leaders who, too, have authority. The impression thus far is that she will not do that.
For example, no one, perhaps not even people in her own party, knew who Suu Kyi was going to nominate as her party’s presidential candidate. Htin Kyaw is a trusted friend of Suu Kyi and a humble, deserving man. However, since she has said that she would be above the president, he will be, at best, seen as a “proxy president.”
Until his name appeared as a presidential candidate, no media had mentioned him in any story. Choosing a nominee must have been a difficult decision for Suu Kyi, as she neither has a known second-in-command in her party and nor does she have a successor.
Suu Kyi is 71 years old, and she could possibly become president in 2020, when the next election is held, or mid-term, provided the constitution is amended. Section 59(f) of the charter states that anyone with a foreign spouse or children cannot hold the executive office. Her husband was a British national and her two sons are British and American citizens respectively. When she becomes the president, subject to constitutional amendment, she will be among the oldest heads of state – nine years younger than Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is the 10th oldest head of state in the world.
Instead of using the opportunity she now has to train and cultivate new leaders, Suu Kyi has chosen instead to be a “super minister,” as she is being referred to by media. She is in charge of four ministries: foreign affairs, president’s office, electric power and energy, and education. And now a bill is working its way through parliament to appoint her as state counsellor, a role that would give her prime minister-like powers.
Suu Kyi’s plan for bring in a true democracy in Myanmar also appears to be centered around herself. After being sworn in as president, Htin Kyaw said, “I have a duty to amend this constitution so that it becomes a constitution that suits our country and matches democratic values.” Aware of Suu Kyi’s priorities, media were quick to speculate that he was referring to Section 59(f).
The clause that bars Suu Kyi from presidency is not the main hindrance to democracy. There are other, far more problematic, provisions in the constitution, such as the ones that empower the military: (1) to run its own show without any accountability to the civilian government, (2) to interpret the constitution, (3) to impose military discipline on the whole population, and (4) to control the crucial ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs. Therefore, even if Suu Kyi becomes president, it will be little more than symbolism.
It is possible that the cause to keep Suu Kyi away from presidency was a strategy of the military to keep the world’s attention away from other harmful provisions, and also to allow its amendment in exchange for lifting of more Western sanctions in the future.
It’s time Suu Kyi nipped in the bud the possibility of creating a cult of personality and prioritized democratic reforms over the presidency in a limited civilian government. It’s an uphill task, which only Suu Kyi can undertake.