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Commentary

The Lady as President? Don’t Count on It.

Aung San Suu Kyi says she wants to be Burma's president, but the powers that be aren’t likely to let that happen.


At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia meeting, held in Naypyitaw in early June, opposition leader Daw Aung Suu Kyi reiterated her desire to become president of Myanmar. “I want to run for president and I’m quite frank about it,” she said at a debate held in the Myanmar capital.

There are certainly many who would like to see her realize her wish when the country next goes to the polls in 2015. My bet, however, is that it won’t come to pass, for the simple reason that there are too many people in positions of power who fear it.

For the men who once ruled Myanmar with an iron fist, the current political order is the best of all possible worlds, and one they will not relinquish willingly.

After decades of international criticism, Myanmar’s generals and ex-generals are now fêted around the world for introducing reforms. Far from facing justice for past crimes against the country’s citizens—including countless human rights violations and the theft of national assets—the leaders of the former military regime have either comfortably retired or assumed high positions in the current quasi-civilian government.

While the three areas of the state’s power—the government, the Parliament and the military—have competed among themselves for a greater share of power under the current system, they are not about to let their rivalry go too far, because they all know that they benefit from the status quo. Above all, they will not allow anyone to upset their efforts to reap the rewards of reform even as they maintain their overarching control.

This is why, I believe, the next president of Myanmar will be one of the leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and not Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

As disappointing as this may be to her many supporters, however, all is not lost: There is still a very good chance that she could become vice-president. The real question, then, is who will capture the top spot in 2015, and how that person will manage his relationship with the woman who would be president.

When U Thein Sein, Myanmar’s current president, was handpicked by former junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe to lead the quasi-civilian government that took over from the military in March 2011, he was widely expected to stay in office only for a single term. Now, however, that is not so certain, as he has expressed an interest in capitalizing on his success in winning international and domestic acceptance to seek another term in office. It seems, then, that he is now one of the main contenders for the presidency post-2015.

Unlike the last time, however, he will have a serious rival next time round: Lower House Speaker U Shwe Mann, another ex-general who previously occupied the third-highest position in the former military regime. In his current position, U Shwe Mann has won accolades for allowing Parliament to function as a forum for genuine debate, instead of merely acting as a rubber-stamping institution. At the WEF meeting in Naypyitaw, he told The Irrawaddy that he is also interested in becoming president.

Much has been made of the relationship between U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: It was their meeting several months after the present government was formed that set the stage for the dramatic changes that were to follow.

Far less has been said about how well U Shwe Mann gets on with Myanmar’s most famous political figure. Some analysts have suggested that the two see each other as rivals, but actually, the opposite seems to be true: It is now believed that they have become allies.

The key issue for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is whether she can win support for her efforts to change the 2008 Constitution, which bars her from becoming president on the grounds that she was married to a foreign national.

Shortly after she expressed her desire to become president, U Thein Sein said in a television interview that it was up to Parliament to amend the Constitution—signaling that he was not the one who would come to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s aid.

It is to U Shwe Mann, then, that she must turn if she wants to become president—or the next best thing, vice-president.

And so it comes as no surprise that Myanmar’s most prominent parliamentarian and the Lower House speaker have, according to sources close to both figures, been informally discussing ways to amend the Constitution so that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can become vice-president, in exchange for her backing of U Shwe Mann’s bid to become president.

This arrangement comes with possible risks to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation, since the public generally regards U Shwe Mann as less reputable than President U Thein Sein. But the opposition leader has evidently decided that the risk she is taking is worth the potential reward.

So how does this fit with the problem of resistance to any change at all from Myanmar’s powerful vested interests?

No one in the government, the Parliament or the military wants to give Daw Aung San Suu Kyi the power that she seeks. However, with a “guardian” like U Shwe Mann, who still has considerable influence over the military, the one-time “enemy” of the former regime will be seen as less of a threat to their interests.

This will, in fact, be welcomed by those who fear another confrontation with The Lady, whose domestic and international support remains strong. By making this concession, they may hope to diminish the risk that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—who will be 70 in 2015—will eventually achieve her long-term goal of becoming president.

For her part, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may also be prepared to accept something less than the presidency in the interests of achieving national reconciliation. As vice-president, she can continue to work hard to heal the wounds of nearly 50 years of military rule, during which a tremendous division has grown between Myanmar’s supposed defenders and its people.

This will also reassure the international community, which is watching developments in Myanmar closely, that reforms are not losing momentum. For whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is president or vice-president after 2015, the country will clearly be a very different place from what it was before.

This viewpoint appeared in the July 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.