Aung San Suu Kyi Picks Long-time Aide as Proxy President

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Myanmar's NLD candidate for president, Htin Kyaw, in undated file photo.
Myanmar's NLD candidate for president, Htin Kyaw, in undated file photo.

UPDATED at 10.15 a.m. EST on 2016-03-10

Aung San Suu Kyi tapped a trusted aide and National League for Democracy (NLD) insider as her candidate for president of Myanmar on Thursday, ending months of secrecy surrounding the country’s historic transition to a democratically elected government after decades of military rule.

In the lower house, the NLD nominated Htin Kyaw for vice president, while the outgoing ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), nominated Sai Mauk Kham, a current vice president, officials told reporters.

In the upper house, the NLD nominated Henry Ban Thio, an MP representing Chin State in that chamber . The  USDP nominated Khin Aung Myint, a former chairman of the upper house.

Under Myanmar’s complicated formula, the president is selected from among the three vice-presidents elected by the parliament or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. The Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house), the Amyotha Hluttaw (upper house) and the military lawmakers who hold a 25 percent of reserved seats each separately elect a vice-presidential candidate.

The army, whose representatives did not take part in Thursday's nominations by elected parliamentarians,  is expected to propose its candidate next week, officials told reporters.

Following vetting by a selection committee, a three-way run-off will be held in coming days. The two candidates who aren’t selected as president become vice presidents.

Son, husband of politicians

According to a brief profile in the Bangkok Post, the 69-year-old Htin Kyaw has strong political credentials as the son-in-law of U Lwin, a founder and long-time official of the NLD and the son of a famed poet who won a seat during the party’s 1990 parliamentary election victory that the military junta refused to recognize. Htin Kyaw's wife also serves as an NLD lawmaker.

The 1972 Oxford graduate served as Aung San Suu Kyi’s driver at times during her 15 years of house arrest, and like his late father Min Thu Wun, is a writer who has published under the pen name Dala Ban, or "Mon Warrior", the Post reported. He now works as an executive in Aung San Suu Kyi's charitable education foundation — the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation — named after her mother.

Kachin State Democracy Party Chairman Manan Tuu Jar called Htin Kyaw "the right person" for the job and a man with "almost no weak points."

"He has political history, good health and is an intellectual of a good age. He can still work a lot (for the country), " he said.  "We will support him."

The NLD’s landslide victories in elections for both houses of parliament last November ensures that Htin Kyaw will become president after three-way parliamentary voting.

Aung San Suu Kyi, 70, the 1991 Nobel Prize winner and leader of the NLD, cannot assume the presidency under a clause in the constitution passed by the junta in 2008 that bars her from Myanmar’s highest office because her children are British citizens.

Htin Kyaw and Aung San Suu Kyi in the mid-1990s, when he represented her while she was under house arrest. Credit: RFA
Htin Kyaw and Aung San Suu Kyi in the mid-1990s, when he represented her while she was under house arrest. RFA
'Above the president'

She had held three rounds of talks with military chief Min Aung Hlaing as part of the NLD’s efforts to persuade the army to amend the constitution or suspend it to allow her to become president. When those negotiations failed, the NLD focused on selecting a proxy president to run the country while Suu Kyi rules from a position she described last year as “above the president.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has not elaborated on the role she intends to play. Analysts point to other examples in Asia, such as Singapore's late founder Lee Kwan Yew, who remained a senior minister after his official retirement, or India's Sonia Gandhi, who wielded power in her Congress party's government without having an official role.

"According to the constitution, Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi can’t be president, and she already said that she will be above the president,"  said Sai Late, general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. "Therefore, whoever becomes the president, I believe the new NLD government can achieve many more reforms than the current government has been doing if it is running the nation under the direction of Aung San Suu Kyi."

Thu Wai, chairman of the Democratic Party (Myanmar), however, voiced caution about the expected arrangement.

"There are two kinds of presidents, such as the puppet president and the powerful president. We should have a powerful president with full qualifications," he said.

"Htin Kyaw doesn’t have much experience, but has some qualifications and abilities. The most important thing for him is to have his own rights and power to do what he wants to do," added Thu Wai.

Ethnic reconciliation goals

Despite the NLD’s strong majority in parliament and support from regional ethnic-based political parties, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government will face challenges from a still–powerful military when it takes power on March 31.

The military junta that ruled since a 1962 coup handed power to a quasi-civilian government made up of outgoing president Thein Sein and other ex-generals in 2011.

The junta, however, drafted a constitution that in addition to preventing Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, also gives the military three powerful ministries and 25 percent of the seats in parliament — granting a veto over constitutional change.

NLD spokeswoman Zaw Myint Maung said the choice of little-known ethnic Chin lawmaker Henry Ban Thio represented Aung San Suu Kyi's commitment to achieving national reconciliation in Myanmar, a multi-ethnic former British colony where more than a dozen ethnic armies have been fighting the central government in self-determination conflicts that go back decades. Fighting raged in some regions during the November election campaign.

"We nominated a Chin candidate because we are thinking about national reconciliation, ethnic unity and building a federal union," she said.

Henry Ban Thio said his nomination "highlights how serious I am about the interests of ethnic groups."

“What I see in the NLD’s action is that it gave priority to the ethnic groups as our country needs national reconciliation right now.”

Reported by Win Naing, Win Ko Ko Lat, Thin Thiri, Thiha Tun and Wai Mar Tun for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.





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