Presidential Post Still an Open Question

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 26 January 2016

RANGOON — While reports emerged last week of the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s potential appointees to speakership positions in Parliament, the party’s plans for president have been kept out of the media spotlight.

NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, constitutionally barred from the country’s top post as her two sons are foreign nationals, has stated that the position would be filled by an individual from within the party.

In other, widely-publicized comments, the pro-democracy figurehead also pledged she would be “above the president” when the NLD takes power.

The potential candidate would need to be highly respected, not only among NLD members and the general public, but also by the country’s powerful military.

With that in mind, few would seem more qualified than former army commander-in-chief and NLD patron Tin Oo. The 89-year-old co-founded the NLD in 1988 and spent years under house arrest due to his political activities.

He has currency with Burmese citizens and was a frequent presence by Suu Kyi’s side during campaigns around the country in the lead-up to the November general election.

But the retired general has publically disavowed any presidential ambitions.

“I wouldn’t even if I was asked… I am 89 now,” he told The Irrawaddy last year. “A person who is around 90 is deteriorating either physically or mentally. It is not easy [to serve as president].”

Despite his comments, some observers remain reluctant to rule him out, asking: how would he react if Suu Kyi endorsed him for the position?

It’s understandable that a man of Tin Oo’s age would be reluctant to assume the country’s highest office, but given Suu Kyi’s vow to lead the country, regardless of her official position, the presidential role may be slightly less burdensome.

Before November’s election, Suu Kyi’s personal physician, Tin Myo Win, was among those touted for the role. This notion gathered steam on Monday when it emerged the doctor was a member of the NLD’s small delegation, led by Suu Kyi, that met with Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw.

Htin Kyaw, a senior party member, and his wife Su Su Lwin, the daughter of the late U Lwin, one of the NLD’s founders, have both separately been tipped for the position, which will be voted on in the new Parliament, which opens on Feb. 1.

Khin Zaw Win, founding director of the Tampadipa Institute think tank, said whoever becomes president will only be in office a short while.

“[Suu Kyi’s] ultimate goal is to become the president of Burma. So surely she will try to fix Article 59(f) of the Constitution,” he said, referring to the clause that bars the NLD leader from the job. “So the president-elect will be temporary.”

Indeed, Suu Kyi has, for several years, made no secret of her political goals. “I want to run for president and I’m quite frank about it,” she said during a World Economic Forum symposium in Naypyidaw in 2013.

To amend Article 59(f) in Parliament, Suu Kyi would need the support of military lawmakers who command a quarter of legislative seats and an effective constitutional veto, as major amendments require approval of more than 75 percent of MPs.

It’s evident that Suu Kyi has endeavored to cultivate a healthy relationship with the military, emphasizing national reconciliation and collaboration. She has met with the commander-in-chief on two occasions since the election and also with ex-dictator Than Shwe at his residence in the country’s capital.

From the slivers of information made available, the high-level meetings have thus far proceeded smoothly.

But Khin Zaw Win warned that building relations with the country’s military should not be the sole objective on the NLD chairwoman’s radar.

“Rather than striking a deal with the army, she should also reach out to the ethnics. How would they feel if she gives too much attention to the military?” he said.

Khin Zaw Win also warned that the quest for the presidency should not overshadow other important matters of governance, such as addressing administrative issues and the peace process.

“U Thein Sein has failed to fix the administrative problems. His policies were good on the table but when implemented, they didn’t work due to administrative problems at lower levels,” he said. “As the head of the incoming government, she has to be aware of it.”