Will the Position of State Counselor be Renewed by Myanmar’s New Government?

By Htet Naing Zaw 3 December 2020

NAYPYITAW—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—who is barred from becoming the president due to a provision in the Constitution that prohibits anyone with a foreign-born spouse or children—led the country through her position as State Counselor after her party came to power in 2016.

It is the second-highest position of authority after the president and is akin to a prime minister. In state protocol, the position is ranked second after the president.

When her party won by a landslide in the 2015 election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi effectively became the person managing the country’s affairs. As she told the press, even if she could not assume the presidency, she would still take the helm of the country’s affairs sitting beside the president.

She also concurrently serves as the President’s Office minister and as foreign affairs minister. Now, following November’s victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD), people are interested to see if she will continue to hold her current position in the incoming government.

Creation of State Counselor position

NLD lawmaker U Aung Kyi Nyunt put forward the State Counselor bill in the Upper House on March 31, 2016. Then-President U Htin Kyaw signed the bill into law on April 6 and the whole process took just a week.

Though Article 59 (f) of the military-drafted Constitution bars her from the country’s top job, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was able to take the helm of the cabinet after the NLD made use of Article 217, which allows the Union Parliament to assign duties and grant authority to any authoritative body or person.

The State Counselor is accountable to the Union Parliament and cannot be dismissed by the President. The term of the office for the State Counselor is equal to the term of the President, with both serving until March 2021.

“[In 2016] We made [the State Counselor position] with the advice of legal experts. It was not designed by the party nor did I design it alone,” U Aung Kyi Nyunt told The Irrawaddy.

Asked if the bill will be submitted again in the upcoming Union Parliament, which is set to start in early 2021, he said the party has not provided any direction so far and it is still too early to tell.

Article 217 says, “Subject to the provisions of the Constitution, the executive power of the Union shall be vested in the President. Nothing in this Section shall prevent the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw [Union Parliament] from conferring functions and powers upon any authoritative body or person, or be deemed to transfer to the President functions and powers vested in any administrative body or person concerned under the existing laws.”

Ministry of the Office of the State Counselor

Just as there is the President’s Office for the President, there emerged the State Counselor’s Office for the State Counselor under the NLD government.

The State Counselor’s Office has, over the past five years, primarily focused on internal peace and the Rakhine State issue.

The State Counselor’s Office minister is a veteran diplomat from the military regime, U Kyaw Tint Swe. He works closely with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and has played a more important role than other ministers.

Deputy Minister U Khin Maung Tint is a retired military official, having served in the Myanmar Air Force, and also a former ambassador to Japan. He is mainly responsible for dealing with the Rakhine issue and the peace process.

Another deputy minister is U Min Lwin, who was appointed out of necessity when Myanmar was prosecuted at the International Court of Justice over the Rakhine issue. He served as Myanmar’s ASEAN diplomatic representative.

The Ministry of the Office of the State Counselor has the minister’s office and two departments. Director-General of the minister’s office is a retired captain of Myanmar’s military, U Kyaw Lwin.

Under the ministry, there are the Policy Department and Union Peace Implementation Department. The director-general of the policy department is U Win Kyaw Aung. He is a former military officer and served in the President’s Office.

The director-general of the Union Peace Implementation Department is U Zaw Htay, who is also the spokesman of the President’s Office.

U Zaw Htay graduated from 37th intake of the Defense Services Academy. When the late General Soe Win assumed the premiership during the military regime, U Zaw Htay moved along with him to the government’s office as a major.

The ministry has to provide support in domestic travel, peace talks and public meetings on the part of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and is estimated to have around 100 staff members.

State Counselor or People Consultative Council?

Because Article 217 allows the Union Parliament to assign duties and grant authority to any authoritative body or person, it will be interesting to see how the NLD will capitalize on this section in the new political landscape after the 2020 election.

The idea of creating the second-highest position of power after the President is not new. Former military dictator Senior General Than Shwe, after adopting the 2008 Constitution and transferring authority to his juniors through the 2010 election, did attempt to maintain his grip on power by creating the “State Steering Committee” under Section 217.

But the plan failed when then deputy military chief Vice Senior General Maung Aye raised objections.

Because its electoral victory in November has granted the NLD the final say in most of the issues in the incoming Union Parliament, the party can have the State Counselor Law renewed to keep Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her current position for the next five years.

Opposition from Tatmadaw?

The Tatmadaw raised strong objections when the State Counselor bill was introduced in 2016.

Sources close to political circles in Naypyitaw suggest the NLD would be wise to find a strategic route toward national reconciliation so that the Tatmadaw would not need to raise objections again. In addition, such an approach should allow the current military chief, who will turn 65 next year, to continue to serve the country.

They believe the formation of a group consisting of both military and civilian leaders under Article 217, rather than granting power to an individual, could help solve many problems resulting from strained military-civilian relations, including disputes over amending the Constitution.

There has been speculation that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing or their representatives have been in talks in Naypyitaw (following last month’s election).

Political observers say an authoritative body consisting of government and military leaders, ethnic leaders and technocrats would be the right apparatus to find solutions whenever crises arise in the country.

Former Lower House lawmaker for Hsipaw Township U Ye Htun said he had predicted that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would work as a boss when her party won the 2015 vote, but his prediction was wrong. Instead Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has worked as a micro-manager instead of as a boss.

“It depends on her. If she continues to hold the State Counselor position,she will renew the law. It would be better if an organization [a council] were to be formed instead. It is not bad if [her government] pays heed to suggestions made at the organization [or council],” said U Ye Htun.

NLD Central Executive Committee member U Aung Kyi Nyunt said the State Counselor has proven to be effective in handling the country’s various issues, and there had been some progress in the peace process, including the 21st Century Panglong peace conference.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been leading from the front in handling all the issues from the economy to the COVID-19 health crisis, and she has actively and shrewdly addressed the country’s issues both inside the country and on the international stage. So that question [of whether the State Counselor law will be renewed] should not be asked at all,” said U Aung Kyi Nyunt.

Political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein said, “Because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can’t take the presidency due to Section 59(f), the State Counselor Law and State Counselor position is still necessary.”

The government would be more effective if there were a clear division of labor between the President and State Counselor, he suggested.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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