Though difficult times no doubt still lie ahead, the citizens of Myanmar today awoke to a new dawn, far different from what was implied in the cynical name of the country’s leading state-run newspaper. Today they have a democratically elected leader following decades of military rule.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in November’s election, but that triumph brings with it formidable responsibility. Citizens from all walks of life will now be counting on them to deliver tangible benefits to daily life under civilian rule.
“The Lady”, as she’s called admiringly, will not, however, be taking the helm herself. Four months of negotiations failed to remove or amend an article in country’s contribution prohibiting Suu Kyi from becoming president. The NLD had no choice but to put forward alternatives for the president and vice-president’s posts, choosing among the best and brightest remaining in its ranks.
Htin Kyaw was anointed to become head of state and, as of this writing, appears to stand a firm chance of gaining the position in a vote today. Henry Van Thio, a Chin selected to represent the country’s multitude of ethnic minorities, is just as likely to take over the vice presidency.
Htin Kyaw has been belittled as “Suu Kyi’s former driver”, but he is far from unknown in politics. He did once serve as the Nobel laureate’s chauffeur, but only out of urgent necessity at a time of heightened political tensions, when her personal safety was at risk. His service behind the wheel is better seen as an indicator of the level of trust Suu Kyi has in him.
In fact Htin Kyaw has been, in a sense, her chief of staff for decades, even though he held no executive position at the NLD to begin with. His father, Min Thu Wan, was a poet who ran as an NLD candidate in 1990. His father-in-law, U Lwin, was one of the party’s founders. His wife, Su Su Lwin, is a sitting NLD MP.
At 69 just one year younger than Suu Kyi, Htin has a degree in economics from overseas and is no less knowledgeable on most matters of state than Suu Kyi herself. He is also chief of the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a charity named after Suu Kyi’s mother.
Henry Van Thio is less well known but seen as a sound representative of Myanmar’s ethnic diversity. A graduate of Mandalay and Yangon universities, he is 58 and was born in Shin State, served in the military and then as manager of a factory in Mandalay. He was a deputy general manager at the Industries Ministry. He is a member of the Upper House, a two-term sitting MP for the NLD.
Myint Swe, 64, the military’s nominee for the presidency, is decidedly less impressive. A hard-line conservative who is barred from entering the United States, he is chief minister of Yangon and a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe, dictator since 1988 and still pulling political strings through the army.
The nominations for the country’s highest offices indicate that the NLD and the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, are still at odds, which bodes ill for future cooperation. The army’s powerful conservative faction is loath to compromise, regardless of a clear mandate from the people. The NLD’s chief mission is to restore civilian rule in a country that was a dictatorship for decades and only recently became a quasi-democracy. This and the many other tasks before it will not easily by undertaken in a political structure still so fragile.