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Urging caution in light of Myanmar’s new president. His selection leaves many questions unanswered.
Following on from Monday’s vote in parliament, Htin Kyaw has become president of Myanmar. Does he represent a new dawn for a nation which has languished in the shadows of poverty and authoritarianism? He is a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which swept to power in November 2015 with eighty-six percent of the vote. This election was more fair and open than any previous ones, though obstacles to full democracy remain. As the first head of the Burmese government with no connections to the country’s military for over half a century, his election can be read two ways. It is both the final step in a long liberalising process that began in 2003, and the start of a new political era for the state and the people.
It is therefore tempting to celebrate the last few months in Myanmar as a real victory for the advancement of representative government. Undoubtedly, any country which transitions out of more than fifty years of military-directed rule by peaceful voting should be lauded. However, praise for the Burmese example should be tempered by some hard questions. Firstly, Htin Kyaw is likely to be a proxy president for Suu Kyi. As much as she may be an icon and advocate for democracy, other examples in the region attest that this style of back-seat leadership rarely creates stable government. Myanmar’s democratic institutions are very new and untested; allegations of NLD cronyism and opaque political processes, from either the military or the outgoing Union Solidarity and Development Party could be very damaging. These are obstacles to both the democratisation of the country and the right of the government to call itself democratic.
The problem of Htin Kyaw’s proxy presidency stems from the controversial clause 59 of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, which stipulates that no one who has married a foreigner, or who has had children abroad, may become head of state. This precludes Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, from taking office. Given her social status and moral authority in the nation, it is reasonable to assume that she would be involved in government in some capacity. Unfortunately, her repeated claims to be able to rule above the president, partly by selecting a loyal candidate as she has done, call the importance of the elected office into question. A head of state should be exactly that, a head. Even though the NLD clearly have a concrete mandate to rule, it sets a dangerous precedent in such a young democracy to install a puppet leader. Clearly the ideal scenario would be for the military to rescind their threatening opposition to Suu Kyi’s becoming president and allow the constitution to be altered. That is not going to happen.
Htin Kyaw is a transparent choice for president. The NLD’s supermajority election victory essentially ensured that their desired nominee would take the post. Choosing a childhood friend of the party chairwoman, who has no legislative experience nor much of a public profile, hardly suggests that the party leadership is looking for an especially independent president. Attempts to invest actual authority in a “power behind the throne” have not worked in either India or Thailand. Their examples should stand as cautions. Rightly or wrongly, former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was accused of being a representative of her exiled brother. This marred her term with the stench of corruption and contributed to her eventual impeachment. The military seized power after she was removed. Insofar as this is germane for Myanmar, the point is not whether or not Shinawatra was indeed her brother’s mouthpiece; it was the perception of rule by proxy which provided ammunition for the government’s enemies and so contributed to the suspension of democracy.
It is of course possible that the NLD will avoid this problem. The party’s openness about Suu Kyi’s ultimate authority combined with her status as a national icon and political hero may work as currency in favour of the idea of a proxy president. Many who voted for her party saw the vote as a vote for her, “The Lady”, rather than a vote for the specific NLD parliamentary candidate in that district. One might conclude that these factors demonstrate the wealth of public goodwill towards any form of government in which Suu Kyi pulls the strings. But although her overwhelming popularity definitely aided their election result, it also raises concerns over the public perception of Htin Kyaw. The president’s office will need to tread a very fine line. An obsequious relationship with the NLD party leadership will open the entire government up to criticism at home and abroad. If Kyaw reveals himself to be an independent and proactive statesman, he may well lose core supporters in his party and the population.
A similar balancing act is demanded of Suu Kyi. Regrettably, her conduct during the election campaign has fuelled allegations of officiousness, even a rather autocratic leadership style. She will tarnish her (so far) gleaming reputation if she is seen to overstep the mark. Even if she is given some sort of official role in the new government, her position will still technically be subservient to that of the president. Added to that is the continuing military presence in both parliament and government. They will, in all likelihood, attempt to frustrate further democratic reform and exacerbate the problems of proxy rule. Despite the resounding electoral victory for the NLD, it will take skill and tact for both Suu Kyi and Htin Kyaw to negotiate the complications of their positions while delivering effective government to Myanmar’s people. The danger is that the cup of victory becomes a poisoned chalice.
Image courtesy of United Nations Photo