New Political Order Begins in Burma

By Aung Zaw 31 March 2016

“It’s now official and it’s party time!” many Burmese said to each other. Millions were glued to live television footage of the long awaited official political handover which took place at the presidential palace on Wednesday.

A new government came into power and the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) Htin Kyaw, a close confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi, was sworn in as Burma’s ninth president.

As the new administration settles in, it is expected that fundamental changes and surprises await—the first of which is talk of a new political position being created for Suu Kyi, who now holds four Cabinet posts in the new government as minister of foreign affairs, electric power and energy, the president’s office and education.

Aung Zaw
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

While no title yet exists for this role, it is likely to be “state political counselor,” or even “state adviser in chief.” A draft “State Adviser Bill” is being discussed in the Upper House that would effectively make Suu Kyi head of state, according to one NLD lawmaker.

Such a broad designation would not only allow the Lady to move freely within the government and offer guidance to President Htin Kyaw—it could also fulfill her repeated claim that in a new administration, she would be “above the president,” or, at the very least, his equal.

Her intentions have been revealed earlier than expected, but everything surrounding the new leadership’s inauguration is unfolding rapidly.

Htin Kyaw’s first presidential speech, which lasted only three minutes, did not exactly capture the political momentum of the occasion or provide national inspiration. But in a limited time frame, he did emphasize the importance of building a peaceful, federal and democratic nation in an ethnically diverse country plagued by civil war. He also stressed his party’s continued push for constitutional reform.

“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.

In the three-minute speech, Htin Kyaw also mentioned Suu Kyi’s name, with a gentle reminder that she remains the real political boss, even before knowledge of the draft state adviser bill was made public.

Many NLD supporters described the succinct speech as straightforward and meaningful. It was a comparatively brief political statement in the context of Burma’s modern history, which the public welcomed. After all, Htin Kyaw’s executive predecessors were notorious for delivering long-winded monologues unsupported by policies and action, leaving Burma in limbo for generations.

Like the speech, the handover ceremony at the President’s house was also rather abrupt. Observers on social media were not critical of the hasty proceedings, however, and many responded by posting jokes and satirical commentary about the occasion.

“The faster the better, because I want them to leave as soon as possible,” said one user, implying that Thein Sein’s administration was an extension of the former military regime—and highlighting an eagerness to see this period of Burma’s history give way to change.

At the dinner hosted in the presidential palace to conclude the day’s events, Thein Sein and his former cabinet ministers were nowhere to be seen, but military commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was present. It was Suu Kyi who was once again the center of attention, rather than loyalist Htin Kyaw.

On Thursday morning, state-owned newspapers, which were once described as “Stalinist,” splashed photos of the new government on their pages. Suu Kyi is, predictably, at the center of these images; Htin Kyaw is there too, and a smiling Min Aung Hlaing also makes an appearance.

This government-owned media is now operating under the new information minister, Pe Myint, a well-known and respected writer in Burma. Until midnight after his inauguration, the newly appointed minister was reportedly working on the production of Thursday’s paper, knowing it would represent a new political message.

Poems written by some revolutionary heavyweights—including former student leader and longtime political prisoner Min Ko Naing—were published for the first time in a state-run paper. It was also the first time that a respected editorial cartoonist, APK, was invited to contribute a piece of his work to such a publication.

Headlines in Thursday’s Burmese version of The New Light of Myanmar read: “New history begins in Burma…” Similarly, The Mirror, which once served as a mouthpiece to the repressive military regime and denounced opposition, thundered: “The greatest change ever in 50 years and a government is formed under the guidance of a Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy government!”

Indeed, the undeniable fact is that a new political order has begun in a once military-ruled Burma.

Some cannot help but reflect back on Suu Kyi’s first landmark political speech in 1988, when the Lady, then 43, famously described the fight for democracy as a “second struggle for independence,” meaning that it was necessary to liberate Burma and citizens from the army’s generals the way that her father did from British domination.

After more than two decades, this long struggle is now beginning to witness some vital changes and political shifts, but it has not succeeded just yet.