Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘It’s Too Much to Label U Htin Kyaw a Puppet President’

By The Irrawaddy 19 March 2016

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. Tuesday morning the first civilian president [in over 50 years] was elected in Myanmar. His name is U Htin Kyaw. Over the past 54 years, the generals and ex-generals of the military have dominated the country. This moment marks a historic moment for Myanmar. So we’ll discuss the challenges facing U Htin Kyaw’s government in the new political landscape. Chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society U Aung Moe Zaw and political commentator Ko Yan Myo Thein will join me for the discussion. I am Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

This morning, we watched the selection of our new president on television. U Htin Kyaw is the first pure civilian president in 54 years, nominated by the National League for Democracy [NLD], whom the people voted for in November. So it’s fair to say he represents the people.

How do you feel?

Aung Moe Zaw: [I was so excited] I couldn’t hold back my tears as I watched [the television].  It was exciting and encouraging. I believe it will be a milestone in the country’s history.

KZM: How about you, Ko Yan Myo Thein? What else do you want to say?

Yan Myo Thein: This is an extremely exciting moment for all Myanmar people, including us. Teashops in Yangon turned to the Hluttaw [Parliament] channel, and many people watched the presidential selection like they would a football match. The sight gave me goosebumps.

KZM: U Htin Kyaw’s government will be formed next week. Many people, especially political analysts abroad, have dubbed U Htin Kyaw a ‘puppet government.’ But most Myanmar people aren’t happy with such judgment. Analysts have said this because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in the post-election period that she would be “above the president.” Under such circumstances, what is your take on U Htin Kyaw’s role as the president?

AMZ: It’s too much to label U Htin Kyaw a puppet president, considering his academic qualifications, background, work history and dedication to democracy. One thing for sure is that he is a member of the NLD and has to be accountable to the NLD, as well as to its leadership. He has to lead both daily tasks and administrative work. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will likely only take on the role of giving advice, negotiating and cooperating [with U Htin Kyaw], I think.

KZM: Recently, regional newspapers have written that he would be the puppet president and that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be above him. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi holds the party chairpersonship and, surely, people have voted for her party because they trust her. So people were already prepared to accept whomever she selected to be president. U Htin Kyaw has to take responsibility for the day-to-day functions of the government, and he will have the executive power to do so. How much will he and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi need to work together?

YMT: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is chairwoman of the NLD. The entire nation overwhelmingly voted for her in the 2015 election, handing her the mandate to lead the country. Though she is constitutionally barred from the presidency, people would support the one selected by her party. As far as I understand, U Htin Kyaw is an educated person, participated in democracy struggles, and has made sacrifices and is a person of high caliber. I therefore honestly believe that he will be a president superior to any of his predecessors since 1962.

KZM: The rank U Htin Kyaw holds now is equivalent to a CEO of a business. And Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be chairperson of that company, right? The CEO himself can make decisions on his own on many occasions. But the problem is about the two vice presidents. There was some criticism of the two—U Myint Swe, the current Rangoon chief minister, and U Henry Van Thio, an NLD member who had served as a major in the service. There was strong criticism about the selection of U Myint Swe. He is believed to have close ties with former Sen-Gen Than Shwe. Was he really selected by the military or tipped by the former senior general? And if he was tipped by the former senior general, what political problems may arise?

AMZ: Most people, including us, don’t like U Myint Swe. He is responsible for [the brutal Rangoon crackdown during] the Saffron Revolution [in 2007]. Again, he has done nothing over the past five years. What’s worse, he is also among the responsible persons for the red armbands [vigilantes who attacked students protesting against the National Education Law]. So people and activists don’t like him. But they can do nothing, as he has been selected by the military. There is also talk that the former senior general played a part. I assume that that talk is true.

KZM: The president is selected by the NLD. But there are problems with how the vice president is selected by the military, according to the Constitution. In any country, the president and vice president have to work together, and the vice president has to always adhere to the policy of the president. But given the circumstances, there is little likelihood of this happening in our country. Instead, the [militarily appointed] vice president may resist attempts by the president and the ruling party.  If he was deliberately selected [by the military] to his post for that purpose, how much will it impact the transition?

YMT: The fact that Rangoon Chief Minister U Myint Swe was selected by the military as vice presidenct indicates that former Sen-Gen Than Shwe maintains influence over the military. And it indicates the close relationship between the military and the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP]. But I’m satisfied with one thing: According to the Constitution, the president has the power to assign duties to two vice presidents. And he can change their duties at any time. And according to the Constitution, the vice presidents are responsible to the president, and to the Union Parliament through the president. Therefore, even if disagreement arises during the current Parliament’s term, it needs to be resolved with them democratically.

KZM: Some say that the vice president selected by the military is a hardliner. The military also holds three important minister positions in the cabinet and six positions on the National Security and Defense Council. Under such circumstances, U Htin Kyaw’s government—

YMT: There will be a lot of challenges.

AMZ: I agree with what Ko Yan Myo Thein has said. The president has a considerable level of power, according to the Constitution. It would be quite difficult for the two vice presidents to obstruct the president.

KZM: The Constitution does not allow them to do so.

AMZ: Yes, constitutionally, it would be very difficult for them. So they have to follow the president’s instructions. But then [the president] has to make sure to get along with the military or reach some sort of agreement with it. The role of the president is relatively bigger than that of the vice president. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I think, will keep trying to negotiate with the military, especially the commander-in-chief and military leadership. As Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe has already said, only with the current government, Parliament, political parties, ethnic groups, military and ethnic armed groups working in harmony with a high level of trust and understanding will we be able to lay the foundation [for development] in the next five years.

KZM: There is also criticism of another vice president, selected by the NLD, U Henry Van Thio. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has talked about equality. She has selected an ethnic person to make sure equal rights between [majority] Burman and non-Burman people. Some seem to be concerned that an inclusive government, or a government of national reconciliation, can’t be formed. How should the NLD and U Htin Kyaw form their government?

AMZ: We welcome the newly elected president and have trust in his abilities. We think he will be able to lead [the country] well. But the selection by the NLD of U Henry Van Thio is a little bit controversial, I think. We heard that he joined the party not long ago, and he is not well-known, even in the Chin political community. Given this, we are a little concerned about the next cabinet. There are people [with high capability] who have worked 20 to 30 years with them [the NLD]. There are many skilled persons from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy [SNLD], ZNC [Zomi Congress for Democracy], Mon and even the NLD. I want to see a combination of such people: excellent politicians and military representatives and others.

KZM: Technocrats shouldn’t also be included in the government?

YMT: I like that the vice presidency is given to an ethnic person, but it would be better if the vice president elected during democratic transition is as clean as he can be. As Ko Aung Moe Zaw has said, it is important that really capable people lead the government. In addition to the central government, the division and state governments should also be led by such capable people. He [U Henry Van Thio] will have to face various tests over the next five years. Therefore, I have some concern.

AMZ: And the cabinet members should be politically oriented, and should be politicians. As for technocrats or academics, they have their own role to play in nation-building. The cabinet can assign them properly.

YMT: A system in which ministers give political leadership—

AMZ: Yes, I hope it happens in our country.

KZM: We’ve now switched to a new political order. What do you expect to see?

AMZ: I think we will be able to achieve [genuine] democracy quickly.

YMT: I would like to urge government officials to build a corrupt-free administration that works for the interests of the people.

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