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17 March 2016, Gateway House

Myanmar: the chessboard of destiny

The power game in Myanmar has become clearer with the election of U Htin Kyaw as President. However unanswered questions remain as to the role of NLD leader, Aung Suu Kyi in this new government as well as how Myanmar will operate with two very different groups at the steering wheel.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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On 15 March, the power game in Myanmar became clearer.

On his election as the president, U Htin Kyaw, a trusted adviser and friend of the supremo of the National League of Democracy, observed ‘I have become the president because of sister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s good willingness and loving kindness.’ The military’s nominee, Major General (retd) Myint Swe, was elected as the first vice president. He is a hardliner and figures on the US ‘blacklist’ of persons with whom US companies cannot do business, due to his suppression of democracy in the past. Henry Van Thio was elected as the second vice president. He is Chin by race, Christian by religion and a former military officer. He will only be a secondary player.

In reality, Myanmar has two powerful leaders: NLD Chairperson and supremo Aung San Suu Kyi is the most popular leader with a huge mandate, whereas Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing is the powerful head of the defence forces that ruled the nation since 1962. Both these will now be the principal partners in governance through the trio mentioned above. The three new leaders are expected to be sworn in end March.

This is a remarkable moment for Myanmar. The country embarked on a long transition to democracy in 2011, after 52 years of military rule. On 8 November 2015, the ‘transition within transition’ began, with a general election that resulted in a decisive victory for NLD. That transition will conclude at month’s end. The four-month-long process has revealed simmering tensions between the victor NLD and the army as well as the pressing need for their reconciliation.

A sophisticated game of adjustment will now have to be played by both sides to avoid misunderstandings. For example, immediately after her landslide triumph, Suu Kyi had sought a meeting with outgoing President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to discuss arrangements for power transfer. They rebuffed her, hinting that the meeting would not take place for several weeks. She found a way out and met the previous ‘strong man’ Senior General Than Shwe, still a major influence with the military. His anointing her as a ‘future leader’ opened the doors. The president and the C-in-C quickly found time to meet her. The latter held at least two more meetings with her subsequently.

This led to an emboldened Suu Kyi, raising her ambitions – partly yielding to the pressures from her party. The NLD had sought the military’s concurrence for amendment/suspension of, or exemption from, the constitution’s provision so that Suu Kyi could take over as the president. The army refused; NLD had run into a wall. It perhaps forgot its leader had announced, before the elections, that she would be ‘above the president’, implying clearly that she would accept the constitutional provision barring her presidency.

Nevertheless, the parliamentary timetable to elect the high office-bearers was brought forward and these elections took place smoothly.

To objective observers, Suu Kyi’s choice of the president is, under prevailing circumstances, an excellent one. U Htin is her close confidante, but to dismiss him as ‘her driver’ as the media has done, betrays an ignorance of the facts. He is a highly educated political advisor, former civil servant, former prisoner of conscience and family friend. He has pedigree too: his father was a renowned poet; his father-in-law was one of the founders of NLD; and his wife is an MP. He shares Suu Kyi’s political vision and believes that, in all fairness, she should have been the president. With him at the helm, she will at last be ‘the leader’ of the new government.

The army’s choice of the first vice president has caused considerable dismay in NLD and elsewhere. The second vice president will represent the minorities, although no one is much enthused about him.

In the next fortnight, three key issues will be monitored closely:

First, the position that Suu Kyi will take is yet unresolved. She needs to be part of the government to insulate her from criticism as ‘an extra-constitutional’ authority. That will require appointing a new chairperson for the NLD. Various suggestions have been made by prominent experts, one being that she can be made the prime minister – but no such post exists under Myanmar’s constitution. Others suggest she could be a senior minister to the president, or foreign minister. Alternatively, a combination of the two portfolios may guarantee her complete proximity to the new president as well as a seat on the National Defense and Security Council. This body, though opaque, is considered as more powerful than the cabinet. Of its 11 members, only five are civilians, the foreign minister being one of them.

Second, the next battle will be on the policy statement the new president will deliver before the parliament, on the day of his inauguration. He may begin his five-year tenure on 1 April. It will have to be a balanced one, reflecting change with continuity. Appreciation for President Thein Sein’s achievements, which are not small, will need to be blended with an identification of the unfinished tasks and complex challenges facing the nation. Ideally, it should mirror the NLD’s dreams and the army’s realistic priorities.

Third, from April onwards, expect Myanmar to be like a car driven by two drivers, Suu Kyi and C-in-C Min Aung Hlaing. Given the historical background, it will surely be a complex arrangement, much like a chess game that affects the destiny of 51 million people. Therefore, the principal players will bear the responsibility to show harmony and wisdom. Only then can they hope to become game changers.

Derek Tonkin, one of the world’s best experts on Myanmar, believes that ‘the main protagonists have worked through the permutations already.’ He adds: ‘It is in their gift to make things work.’

Amidst rising hope, anxiety and skepticism, the nation awaits a new dawn.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme at Gateway House, former ambassador to Myanmar, and author of ‘India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours’ (Routledge).

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