Myanmar Swears in First Civilian President in More Than 50 Years

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myanmar-president-transfer-of-power-mar30-2016.JPG Myanmar's outgoing President Thein Sein (R) hands over the presidential seal to the country's new President Htin Kyaw (L) during the transfer-of-power ceremony in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2016.

Htin Kyaw was sworn in on Wednesday as Myanmar’s first civilian president in more than a half-century, telling lawmakers that he will work for a democratic constitution based on a federal union in keeping with the ambition of his National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The new government will implement peace and national reconciliation, pursue “a constitution towards a federal union,” and improve living standards for the people, he told lawmakers during his brief inauguration speech in the capital Naypyidaw.

“I have something important to say on this occasion,” said Htin Kyaw, who is serving as the proxy of NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi. “It is that I have a responsibility to always keep my solemn oath that I had made earlier and to pursue a constitution in accordance with democratic norms that will be suitable for our country.”

“I believe that I will have to be patient in implementing this political aim, which the people have wished to see for years,” he said.

First Vice President Lieutenant General Myint Swe, who served as chief minister of Yangon region, and Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, an ethnic Chin NLD deputy in parliament’s upper house, also took their oaths of office before lawmakers.

A thorn in the side

The current constitution, drafted in 2008 by the military junta that ruled the country, has been a thorn in the side of the NLD for years.

Before the party won its landslide victory in national elections last November, Aung San Suu Kyi spearheaded efforts to change a provision that bars her from the presidency because she has foreign-born relatives.

She also sought to reduce the power of Myanmar’s military, which under the constitution is entitled to a quarter of the seats in parliament, and oversees three key security-related ministries—defense, border affairs, and home affairs, giving it jurisdiction over political prisoners.

After the NLD won more than 80 percent of the vote in the election, Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to rule Myanmar through a hand-picked proxy.

Parliament on Wednesday officially announced her appointment as head of the foreign affairs, education, electric power and energy, and the President’s Office ministries.

Her role as foreign affairs minister ensures her a seat on the 11-member National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), which formulates policy on military and security issues, although the body is dominated 6-5 by military officers.

The BBC reported Wednesday that the NLD government will create a new post for Aung San Suu Kyi similar to that of a prime minister—advisor to the state.

The draft bill creating the position is expected to be submitted to parliament within the next few weeks. It would give her power to work on key issues of government and conduct meetings with whomever she wishes, the BBC said.

Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (L) and Vice President Henry Van Thio attend the transfer-of-power ceremony in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2016. Credit: RFA.
Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (L) and Vice President Henry Van Thio attend the transfer-of-power ceremony in Naypyidaw, March 30, 2016. Credit: RFA.
So long, Thein Sein

Htin Kyaw concluded his brief speech with a promise that the new government will always try to fulfill the people’s hopes and desires, and that all citizens can live peaceful lives and achieve their goals without difficulties.

But his comments about the constitution resonated the most with both lawmakers and citizens alike.

“I welcome his speech because he said he will work on having the new constitution that people want and remedy the country’s situation,” said lawmaker Sai Win Hlaing Kham of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP).

“He pointed to what we need to do—amend the constitution,” said Phyo Maung Maung Win, a professor at the University of Medical Technology.

Htin Kyaw replaces former President Thein Sein of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), who came to the helm in 2011 and introduced democratic reforms.

Thein Sein will assume his former position as chairman of the USDP, said former information minister Ye Htut.

When Thein Sein became president, he had transferred his power as USDP chairman to Shwe Mann, former speaker of the lower house of parliament.

“We are proud of President Thein Sein’s term because we passed through our [political] transition period peacefully without bloodshed,” Ye Htut said. “But we are frustrated about not finishing the peace process that we had started, although we aimed to get it done during our government term.”

Last October, Thein Sein’s government signed a nationwide peace agreement with eight of the country’s armed ethnic group to end decades of civil wars. But other groups either refused to sign the pact or were excluded from it by the government because of ongoing hostilities with Myanmar’s military.

Working with the military

Aung San Suu Kyi has made peace and national reconciliation one of the goals of the NLD’s administration along with ethnic unity.

“The president talked about amending the constitution, building a federal union and national reconciliation, which are all good; but in my opinion, the most important one is having peace in the country,” said Thu Wai, chairman of the Democratic Party (Myanmar).

“If we had peace, we could build a federal union and develop a democratic system and a better economy,” he said. “After having all these, the rest of the problems would be easy to solve. That’s why I want the new government to work on peace first.”

But for the NLD to achieve lasting and permanent peace in the country, it needs the cooperation of the country’s powerful military.

“The NLD and Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi said they will work on establishing peace, but it will be difficult to achieve if the military works against the peace process,” said Naing Han Thar, vice chairman of New Mon State Party. “Having peace is still depends on the military.”

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of Myanmar’s 88 Generation Student democracy movement, called the peaceful transfer of power to a civilian-led government after more than 50 years of military-backed rule a victory for the Myanmar people.

“I believe that we can overcome all difficulties and problems if all forces work together now that we have a civilian president and government,” he said.

Reported by Win Naung Toe, Win Ko Ko Latt, Wai Mar Tun, Khin Khin Ei, Thinn Thiri and Khet Mar. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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