A new beginning in Myanmar

Suu Kyi’s government will have to pull Myanmar out of economic backwardness while addressing ethnic and religious differences.

March 16, 2016 01:43 am | Updated September 20, 2016 05:35 pm IST

"Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that she will not give up power even if she cannot occupy the President’s post'." Pictures show the NLD leader and the country’s new President U Htin Kyaw.

"Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that she will not give up power even if she cannot occupy the President’s post'." Pictures show the NLD leader and the country’s new President U Htin Kyaw.

After more than half a century, >Myanmar has finally got a democratically elected government with a civilian at the helm. With U Htin Kyaw, the National League for Democracy’s candidate, being elected on March 15, the country will have a new President, a civilian Vice-President, and a Vice-President from the military, albeit under the supervision of the Tatmadaw or Myanmar’s military, which retains a quarter of the seats in Parliament and the power to nominate the three most important ministers: Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs.

Limited options And Myanmar has Aung San Suu Kyi, easily the country’s most beloved leader. Even though Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD won a whopping 77 per cent of the elected seats in Parliament, Amay Suu, or Mother Suu, as she is fondly called, cannot lead the government because of a constitutional provision that bars her since her sons are British and not Myanmar citizens.

From the start, Ms. Suu Kyi’s options were limited. In order to amend the Constitution, she needed the vote of more than 75 per cent of MPs, which was impossible without the military’s support. Some even went to the extent of suggesting that she should disown her sons, one of whom has been estranged from her for some time, but that was too much to ask of someone who has often spoken of the brutally hard choice she had to make when she stayed a prisoner in her own country rather than live in exile with her family. The other option, equally untenable, was to have her sons take Myanmar citizenship, as both men grew up outside of the country.

Until last week, Ms. Suu Kyi had pinned her hopes on the possibility of a fourth option: to negotiate a compromise with the military generals to waive or suspend the constitutional provision in return for a less confrontational posture with them. But that did not happen. So the >NLD nominated Mr. Htin Kyaw, a mild-mannered economist and writer she has known from her early school days. Mr. Htin Kyaw has been wrongly identified by the media as her “driver”; he has, in fact, been a trusted associate for decades. Both his and his wife’s family are prominent in Myanmar’s political history, although he has never held any political ambitions himself.

For all these reasons Mr. Htin Kyaw was the perfect choice for President for Ms. Suu Kyi, who has made it clear that she will not give up power even if she cannot occupy the post. “[The appointed President] will have no authority,” she had told a television channel in November 2015. She also dismissed concerns that the dual power centres would affect the government’s functioning. “Why should it affect the functions of the government? The President will be told exactly what he can do,” she said. In addition to holding the strings of power, Ms. Suu Kyi might join the Cabinet as Foreign Minister, or occupy a specially created post of Prime Minister.

Yet, despite the complete confidence in her, Ms. Suu Kyi’s path is as challenging and fraught with problems as her past has been. The military, which imprisoned her, and has only agreed very slowly and grudgingly to her rise to power, retains control of Myanmar. By successfully inserting Vice-President-elect (retired) General Myint Swe into the power structure, despite vocal objections from the U.S., Tatmadaw has shown it will not give up even this toehold.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s government will also face the challenge of pulling Myanmar out of decades of economic backwardness while addressing ethnic and religious differences. Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in Asia: it ranks 149 among 186 nations rated in the 2013 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme. Its forests have been plundered at a fast pace, while very little industrialisation or infrastructure development has taken place outside of its cities. This is where India, which has chosen to make aid to Myanmar a focal point in its development assistance plans this year, must work closer with the country in order to bolster the new government.

South Asian parallels

Ms. Suu Kyi is by no means the only South Asian leader to attempt this power-sharing arrangement. She will have to learn from the other subcontinental experiences if she is to be the rare one to succeed.

The obvious parallel is to the tenuous relationship between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which was even the subject of a bestseller. But there are also other examples. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari found that his hand-picked Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani broke ranks over bureaucratic appointments, leading to frequent rifts between the two. In any case, in Pakistan, the Prime Minister has often been upset by his choice of Army Chief and vice-versa.

In Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are also often seen at loggerheads, as the unique power-sharing agreement between them is yet to be fully implemented. Even Bhutan has seen its share of tussle, when former Prime Minister Jigme Thinley initiated a closer relationship with China, and met the then Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of a summit in 2012, much to the chagrin of the revered Bhutanese King, a ruler who had paved the way for a fuller democracy and power to the Prime Minister and Parliament.

The lesson, if there is one, is clear: even the most unambitious appointee may strain at the leash after he is placed in the seat of power.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, wrote Shakespeare for King Henry IV. “Uneasier still are the hands that pull its strings”, he may well have added for the uncrowned queen of Myanmar’s people, as she writes a new chapter in the country’s history.


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