NAYPYITAW – Htin Kyaw, a trusted friend of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, took over as Myanmar’s president Wednesday, calling it a “historic moment” in the country’s long-drawn transition to democracy after decades of military rule.
In a day full of ceremony and symbolism, Htin Kyaw was sworn in along with his two vice presidents and 18-member Cabinet that includes Suu Kyi in an austere hall of parliament with lawmakers dressed in traditional costume.
While a momentous day in the history of this impoverished Southeast Asian country, democracy still feels incomplete. The military retains considerable power in the government and parliament, and the president himself will play second fiddle to Suu Kyi, who has repeatedly said she will run the country from behind the scenes because the military has ensured — through a constitutional manipulation — that she cannot be the president.
Still the day belonged to Htin Kyaw — and Suu Kyi — who sat in the front row watching her confidant become head of a government she had long aspired to lead.
“The Union Parliament has elected me as president, which is a historic moment for this country,” Htin Kyaw, 70, said in his speech after being sworn in. He pledged to work toward national reconciliation, peace between warring ethnic groups and improving the lives of the country’s 54 million people.
Rightfully, the job belonged to Suu Kyi, who led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide win in November elections, ushering in Myanmar’s first civilian government after 54 years of direct and indirect military rule.
Suu Kyi who has been the face of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement endured decades of house arrest and harassment by military rulers without ever giving up on her nonviolent campaign to unseat them. The constitutional clause that denied her the presidency excludes anyone from the position who has a foreign spouse or children. Suu Kyi’s two sons are British, as was her late husband. The clause is widely seen as having been written by the military with Suu Kyi in mind.
In his speech Htin Kyaw signaled the dominant role Suu Kyi will play in his government.
“The new parliament and new government is formed in accord with the policies of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said, and referred to the party’s goal to amend the constitution.
“I have the obligation to work toward achieving a constitution that has democratic norms and is suitable for the nation,” he said. “I want to tell the new government, we must constantly try to fulfill the hope and will of the people of this country. I wish all citizens of this country a successful and peaceful life.”
The constitution, drafted by the former junta, reserves 25 percent of the seats in parliament for military officers, guaranteeing that no government can amend the constitution without its approval. The military also heads the Home Ministry and the Defense Ministry, which gives it control over the corrections department, ensuring that the release of political prisoners is its decision to make.
The military also ensured that one of Htin Kyaw’s two vice presidents is a former general, Myint Swe, a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe. Myint Swe remains on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist that bars American companies from doing business with several tycoons and senior military figures connected with the former junta.
As Htin Syaw was sworn in, Suu Kyi sat in the front row watching. The same pledge was simultaneously read by First Vice President Myint Swe and Second Vice President Henry Van Tio. After a 20-minute tea break, all 18 members of Htin Kyaw’s Cabinet, including Suu Kyi took a joint oath of office read out by the speaker.
Although names of Cabinet ministers are known, their portfolios have not been formally announced. Suu Kyi is expected to hold four portfolios including foreign minister, education and energy minister and head the Ministry of the President’s Office.
Despite her inability to become president, Suu Kyi’s entry into the government is a remarkable turn of fortunes not only for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate but also for the country, which had been under iron-fisted military rule since 1962. For decades the junta kept Myanmar in isolation and economic stagnation while refusing to listen to international counsel or homegrown demands for democracy.
Suu Kyi came to prominence in 1988 when popular protests were building up. The junta crushed the protests that had turned into anti-government riots, killing thousands of people and placing Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989.
The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to hand over power when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won overwhelmingly. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a year later while under house arrest.
The junta finally started loosening its grip on power in 2010, allowing elections that were won by a military-allied party after the NLD boycotted the polls as unfair. A former general, Thein Sein, was installed as president for a five-year term that started March 30, 2011, and ended Wednesday.