Swearing In, Speech and Handover Mark Day of Shifting Power

By The Irrawaddy 30 March 2016

RANGOON — President Htin Kyaw was sworn in and delivered a brief speech to Parliament on Wednesday, emphasizing familiar themes of his party, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD), and noting the significance of his history-making presidency.

National reconciliation; peace-building; democratic constitutional reform based on principles of federalism; and improving livelihoods were listed by the president as priorities for his administration.

“The second Parliament and cabinets, which are the result of the 2015 November general election, are formed in accordance with the policies of the NLD, which is led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said, alluding to the most famous non-president in the parliamentary chamber on Wednesday.

Htin Kyaw, who was sworn in earlier in the morning, indicated that his party’s push to amend the country’s 2008 Constitution would continue as it takes the reins of government.

“I have an obligation to work toward having a Constitution that is of a democratic standard and which is suitable for the country,” he said.

“I understand that we have to work patiently to achieve the political ambitions that our public has sought for many years.”

At less than three minutes, the speech was as notable for what wasn’t said as what was, in a country beset by problems and—as evidenced by the NLD’s November election triumph—eager for the leadership of its chairwoman Suu Kyi.

For now, anyway, the face of that leadership will be Htin Kyaw.

Burma’s first civilian president in more than five decades will also be the country’s first “proxy president,” described by Suu Kyi as an obedient executor of her will. The unusual arrangement was deemed necessary by the NLD chairwoman after her campaign to amend a constitutional provision barring her from the post came up short. Article 59(f) bars anyone with foreign spouses or offspring from the presidency, rendering Suu Kyi ineligible because her two sons are British, as was her late husband.

Htin Kyaw was put forward by the NLD on March 10 and won the most votes among three vice presidential nominees five days later. The two runners up, military appointee Myint Swe and NLD lawmaker Henry Van Thio, will serve in Htin Kyaw’s administration as vice president Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.

Suu Kyi will take four ministerial portfolios in Htin Kyaw’s cabinet, ensuring she will remain close to the action in the executive branch at the head of the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Electric Power & Energy, and Education, as well as acting as President’s Office minister. Like Htin Kyaw, she was sworn in on Wednesday in Parliament, along with 17 other ministers.

Htin Kyaw succeeds former President Thein Sein, the retired general who presided over a quasi-civilian Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government lauded for undertaking a series of dramatic political and economic reforms over the last five years, but also criticized for failing to push changes further.

While Thein Sein opened the political space to a greater degree of freedom compared with the repressive junta that preceded his government, peaceful protestors continued to be imprisoned under his watch, and efforts to amend Burma’s controversial Constitution faltered last year, with Thein Sein indicating little appetite for changes to the charter. That mixed legacy will no doubt be the subject of much debate in the years to come.

His successor, in closing remarks, promised a government responsive to its citizens.

“In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that the Union government will work with full attention to fulfill the public’s expectations and desires,” Htin Kyaw told lawmakers on Wednesday.

A ceremonial transfer of power took place at the Presidential Palace less than an hour later, with Thein Sein handing over a golden presidential sash and dossier of responsibilities to Htin Kyaw. The five-minute ceremony was attended by Suu Kyi and other members of Htin Kyaw’s cabinet, as well as ministers of the outgoing, military-backed USDP executive.