Htin Kyaw, soft-spoken and often sporting a white traditional Burmese jacket, can be seen over the years in a smattering of photographs for which he, inevitably, was never the lens’ focus. But there he is, nonetheless, a regular presence in public appearances made by Burma’s charismatic pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi since her release from house arrest in November 2011.
Now, barring an unforeseen turn, Htin Kyaw will become Burma’s first civilian president in a half-century. The good news for Burmese people is this: Like his preferred white jacket, Htin Kyaw is known to be clean, with no trace of corruption tainting his respected if little-known résumé.
Few outside the country would have known the name before Thursday, when he was put forward by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy as the party’s presumptive presidential pick. Asked to bet on a class of foreigners most likely to know the man, the money would be on diplomats, who would have known Htin Kyaw as a close confidante of Suu Kyi who kept lines of communication between her and the outside world open during her years under house arrest.
He might be an understated entity, but a political novice Htin Kyaw is not.
His late father, U Wun (better known as Min Thu Wun), was a highly respected national scholar and poet of mixed ethnic Mon and Burman stock. He was one of the pioneering writers of a literary movement in Burma known as Khit San, penning short stories and poems in the early 1900s.
U Wun attended Oxford University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in literature in 1939 before returning to teach at the famous Rangoon University. There he met Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, then a student with a rebellious streak. Decades later, in 1988, U Wun joined Suu Kyi’s party and won a seat in the election that followed two years later. Though he was a respected literary light, the military regime banned his publications and he died in 2004, nearly a decade before Burma’s democratic spring.
It was this family connection that brought Suu Kyi and Htin Kyaw, who is one year her junior, together as high school classmates in Rangoon, the beginning of a decades-long friendship that has improbably led him to the verge of Burma’s presidency.
Like his father before him, Htin Kyaw also writes articles in Burmese-language magazines under the pen name Talaban, a famous Mon warrior who fought against Burmese King Alaunghpaya, founder of the Konbaung Dynasty.
His late father-in-law, U Lwin, was one of the cofounders of the NLD. A former colonel who joined the Burma Independence Army in 1942 and then trained in Britain after the country regained its independence, U Lwin served as deputy prime minister under the Ne Win government but resigned in 1980. Like U Wun, U Lwin ties his NLD loyalty to the year of its founding in 1988.
Htin Kyaw’s wife Su Su Lwin is also a loyal Suu Kyi supporter. Under the military regime, she worked as an NGO worker to provide education under tight surveillance. Today she is a lawmaker in Parliament and was recently appointed chairperson of the Lower House’s International Relations Committee.
Over the years, the 69-year-old Htin Kyaw has clearly become a close confident of Suu Kyi. Today he serves as an executive committee member of the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a charitable organization named after the late mother of Suu Kyi, who is its chairwoman.
Unlike many hardcore political activists and NLD politicians, he did not spend many years in prison, but did spend some months in detention due to a political crackdown in the late 1990s, when he accompanied Suu Kyi’s aborted up-country trip. Some former political prisoner who shared a tiny room in Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison recalled him as gentle and kind to other prisoners.
Htin Kyaw has clearly been deemed by Suu Kyi to be the best-qualified person to “lead” the nation and new government in light of the fact that she cannot become president—loyal, disciplined, organized and able to reach out to domestic and international communities with equal ease.
Aside from his rock-solid family background, there is an impressive education pedigree: He attended the University of London and has also studied in the United States and Japan, bringing English fluency to Burma’s highest civilian office. That will be important in international exposure going forward, as he will be expected to articulate Suu Kyi’s vision and wishes in a proxy arrangement that will be awkward, if nothing else.
Since Suu Kyi came to accept that she would not, at least for now, be Burma’s president, several candidates undoubtedly sprung to mind, with Htin Kyaw an obvious contender for the shortlist. She knows that as a close confidante, he will be loyal and faithful to her, but he also needs to build trust and confidence with Burma’s military leadership. A fire-breathing dragon for the pro-democracy cause would be likely to chafe the generals, and consequently would not have appealed to Suu Kyi.
In domestic politics, Htin Kyaw will have to work, with Suu Kyi by his side, to address several thorny issues facing the country, including achieving peace with Burma’s ethnic armed groups, spurring economic development and building trust with generals who are still reserved one-quarter of the seats in Parliament, three ministerial portfolios and more, making a near-term exit of the brass from politics unlikely.
Htin Kyaw’s absolute loyalty lies in Suu Kyi, but his duty is to move the country forward. Her followers and the public seem ready to support him and a government that he will ostensibly lead, even though he is not as well-known as heroic second-fiddles in Burma’s democracy movement like Min Ko Naing, Tin Oo or the late Win Tin.
Indeed, the people have yet to see how Htin Kyaw handles a difficult political posting, balancing competing interests that will inevitably give rise to tension with the military. On Friday, the public learned that even within his cabinet there will be personnel challenges: One of his vice presidents, the military announced, will be Myint Swe, the current chief minister of Rangoon Division, whose past does not bode well for future prospects.
Burma’s presumptive, untested leader will soon show the world whether he has the political skills, maneuverability and diplomacy to handle the burden of Burma’s proxy presidency.