Friday, September 22, 2017

Who will her president be?

Will Myanmar’s next president be a woman, a member of an ethnic minority or even a former general?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi attends parliament on January 29. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar TimesDaw Aung San Suu Kyi attends parliament on January 29. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar Times

The newly minted MPs filing into the Pyithu Hluttaw today for the opening of the parliament elected last November almost certainly do not yet know the answer. But within the next 10 days or so, they will vote and find out. A spokesperson for the National League for Democracy says it will be a “big surprise”.

Contrary to initial expectations, it was announced on January 29 that only the Pyithu Hluttaw, or the lower house, would start today. The Amyotha Hluttaw will open tomorrow and the combined Union parliament, or the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, will not meet until February 8.

The first order of business will be for the two houses to officially elect their Speakers and deputy Speakers, whose names were revealed last week by the NLD.

The lower house Speaker elections will be supervised by NLD MP Daw Khin Htay Kywe as temporary chair.

The business of electing the president and two vice presidents is expected to begin next week. President U Thein Sein’s five-year term ends on March 30.

Barred by the constitution from taking the top spot, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced on the eve of the elections swept by the NLD that she would be “above the president”. The choice is clearly in her hands.

The relegation of the nation’s head of state to such a subordinate position has not prevented speculation as to who he or she might be.

Names being bandied about include that of party patron and former military commander-in-chief Thura U Tin Oo; the NLD leader’s personal physician U Tin Myo Win; U Htin Kyaw, son of writer and poet Saya Min Thu Wun, and the sole woman being mentioned, Daw Tin Mar Aung.

An ethnic Rakhine, Daw Tin Mar Aung hails from a prominent political family, the daughter of U Saw Mya Aung, former chair of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament. She is personal assistant to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a constant companion and confidante, known for her loyalty and thought to offer valued advice. She has also worked for the UN as a doctor.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said she might choose a female president. That’s why we assumed that Aunty Nge [Daw Tin Mar Aung] could be a candidate. She is fluent in English and very well informed on political issues, as well as being close to the leader,” said one source who requested anonymity.

Nobody believes, however, that the NLD leader has given up her hope of being president herself. Nevertheless, she may have decided not to keep pressing the military, without whose consent the constitution that bars her cannot be changed.

Another anonymous source speculated, “She might wait a year or two before trying to change the constitution. During that period she would let [former general] U Tin Oo take the post so he can build good relations with the military.”

U Tin Oo, who will turn 89 next month, is one of a very few NLD figures with previous government experience, having served as defence minister and commander-in-chief until he was purged in 1976.

Political commentator U Than Soe Naing predicted that U Tin Myo Win was the most likely candidate.

“I hear he has good relations with the military, including former senior general Than Shwe,” he said.

Military ties would be useful, since the constitution, as amended last June, requires the president to be well acquainted with defence affairs.

Another former general whose name has been circulated is the former house Speaker, Thura U Shwe Mann. He told a farewell press conference in Nay Pyi Taw on January 29 that, in the national interest, he was available for any post Daw Aung San Suu Kyi might offer him. He is one of 10 USDP ex-MPs invited to attend today’s opening of parliament, for reasons undisclosed by the NLD.

Former MP U Khet Htein Nan said he thought the ex-Speaker would make a good president. “I have no doubt that he is fully up to the task,” he said.

However, given that he was ousted as a major player in the USDP last year, evidently amid concerns over his growing power and ambition, Thura U Shwe Mann might not find favour with the military.

One wild-card option is that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing might yet be persuaded to have the military MPs under his command vote for an NLD motion to suspend section 59(f) of the constitution, which bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.

“I think the NLD should try to change 59(f) through negotiations with the military. Suspending a provision of the constitution in parliament is not good practice for the future,” said U Ye Htun, a former lower house MP from the Shan National Development Party.

When the presidential election begins, the upper house, the lower house and the military bloc in parliament will each put forward one candidate and then take a vote.

The winner will form the first democratic government for more than 50 years.

Asked who would do this, an NLD spokesperson would say only, “You’re going to get a big surprise.”