While likely to be remembered as a decent, gentlemanly head of state, U Htin Kyaw, who resigned as president on Wednesday, will also be seen as a largely figurehead president in comparison with the other eight presidents the country has seen since independence in 1948.
In resigning, the 71-year-old cited a desire to retire from his duties, according to the President’s Office. His health has been deteriorating since he underwent surgery last year.
U Htin Kyaw is certainly the least controversial president Myanmar has seen since the military staged its first coup in 1962, beginning decades of iron-fisted rule.
In his nearly two years as president, U Htin Kyaw did what was expected of him under the leadership of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—and no more. He had agreed to serve in the head of state position at the request of the country’s de facto leader, who is herself barred from the office under the military-drafted Constitution because her children are foreign citizens.
Therefore, his role in the country’s first elected civilian administration since 1962 was essentially ceremonial. His tenure was defined by the uncertain and perilous nature of the country’s democratic transition, against the backdrop of a continued significant political role for the powerful military.
Since the day he was elected president—and even before then—U Htin Kyaw was clear that he believed he had been chosen as president by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi because he is a confidant of hers. He also made clear his view that she is the rightful president, as her party won a landslide victory in the last election in 2015.
To be candid, there is not much to say about U Htin Kyaw’s presidency other than that he did nothing to dishonor his government or the country. He can only be seen as a good head of state when viewed alongside his predecessors, most of whom—from the late U Ne Win to U Thein Sein—were ruthless dictators or key players in oppressive regimes.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has come in for considerable criticism for not giving U Htin Kyaw a more active political role and for not allowing him to use his executive powers, especially in dealing with the powerful military. According to the Constitution, the president is “the Head of the Union and the Head of the Union is the President.” Based on this, many political observers said U Htin Kyaw should have exercised more power.
The key questions now are: Who will replace him? And will State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi give the new president more executive power?
As soon as U Htin Kyaw’s resignation was officially announced, Lower House Speaker U Win Myint submitted his resignation to Parliament. He is tipped to become the next president.
U Win Myint is one of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s favorites among the senior members of the ruling National League for Democracy. Since becoming Lower House speaker in February 2016, the former lawyer has developed a reputation for maintaining strict discipline during parliamentary sessions and decisively following parliamentary procedures.
Unlike U Htin Kyaw, U Win Myint has a record of electoral success, having run in three elections—the general election in 1990, the by-election in 2012 and the last election in 2015—and winning each time. He is regarded as a veteran politician whose experience extends back to the time of the military regime. Like other political activists and politicians, he was detained several times by the previous military regime.
Since becoming the Lower House speaker in February 2016 after the NLD won a landslide victory in the 2015 election, U Win Myint has demonstrated the ability to handle a Parliament in which the military occupies 25 percent of the seats.
When talk of his becoming president emerged, many members of both the Lower and Upper houses expressed concern over the prospect of his departure. They believe that the best place for U Win Myint to serve is in Parliament.
Which — if he has indeed been chosen to be the next president — raises the question of why he would be selected at all.
Perhaps Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s thinking on the role of the president has changed since she chose U Htin Kyaw in 2016. If she were looking for another “puppet” president, U Win Myint seems an unlikely choice.
One possible factor to consider is that she herself is not as young and fit as she once was. Pushing 73 and apparently overwhelmed with the countless matters confronting the country, she has been forced to cancel some events recently.
In these circumstances, she may need a “real” president who is strong politically, both in the general sense and when it comes to dealing with specific issues.
Furthermore, on the key political questions, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the government who can closely work with her. Only a few ministers in the current cabinet seem politically strong. It seems there is no one with whom she can discuss political complexities. U Win Myint might be able to fill that gap for the State Counsellor.
The NLD-led government needs to produce some tangible results before the election in 2020. To do that, it needs someone who can solve the country’s problems on a daily basis and help the NLD achieve its broader goals. With his competence and parliamentary experience, U Win Myint might be more assertive and effective in tackling those issues.
Making progress on major goals like amending the 2008 Constitution and advancing the peace process will remain as difficult as ever, however, as this depends on the political will of the military leadership.
U Win Myint, if elected, will not find it smooth sailing to deal with the military leadership, who view him as “tough” and strong willed. The military may not appreciate such a president. U Win Myint has occasionally given military appointees in Parliament a hard time. But that’s not unusual.
U Win Myint might be the best choice among the handful of candidates for the country’s official top office. But if he is to be anything more than a ceremonial president, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will need to give him more executive power. In other words, she would do well to make the office of president more effective in resolving the country’s political stalemate.