Htin Kyaw, a close ally and confidante of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been sworn in as president of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), the first leader of the southeast Asian nation with no military ties in over half a century.
Htin Kyaw was chosen by Suu Kyi, whose National League of Democracy party won a November general election by a landslide, because a constitution drafted by the former junta bars the democracy advocates from the top office.
The road from an isolated military-run Southeast Asian state, shunned by the international community, to becoming a democracy opening up to the world, has been challenging. Suu Kyi needs the military’s backing if it is to complete the switch and she has been forced to make pragmatic decisions.
After decades of struggle to return to parliament, which included jail for many parliamentarians and house arrest for Suu Kyi, NLD members shed tears as Htin Kyaw was sworn in. While the junta has ceded power to the NLD, which won 80 per cent of the vote in November, it remains powerful, retaining three key ministries and a veto over changes Suu Kyi tries to make to the constitution, drafted in 2008.
A clause in the junta's constitution disqualifies anyone with close foreign relatives. The veteran rights activist's late husband, the scholar Michael Aris, and her two sons are British.
Suu Kyi may not be president but she becomes the most powerful civilian leader and will wield huge influence as minister overseeing foreign affairs, education, electric power and energy, as well as the president’s office. Wildly popular, Suu Kyi is referred to as “the Lady”, and she had previously vowed she would rule “above” the next leader.
Htin Kyaw is part of Suu Kyi’s inner circle, running a charity for her and even acting as her driver on occasion. In his speech to the parliament, he called for national reconciliation and echoed Suu Kyi’s line the 2008 constitution needs to be changed. “Our new government will implement national reconciliation, peace in the country, emergence of a constitution that will pave the way to a democratic union, and enhance the living standard of the people,” Htin Kyaw told the chamber. “We have the duty to work for the emergence of a constitution that is appropriate for our country and also in accordance with democratic standards.”
The ceremony was attended by hundreds of diplomats and representatives of non-governmental organisations. Part involved Htin Kyaw and two newly elected vice-presidents holding the constitution and repeating an oath of loyalty to the union of Myanmar and the country’s sovereignty. Expectations are high among the 51.5 million population that Suu Kyi will resolve the country’s many problems – from the need for faster growth to ethnic tensions.
There is renewed attention on how she will deal with relations with the oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority. In a 2013 BBC interview, she was ambiguous in her condemnation of the plight of the Rohingya, saying Buddhists had suffered in the west of Myanmar too. After the interview, she reportedly said: “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim”. – (Additional reporting Reuters)