The Irrawaddy

President’s Inauguration Raises Hopes, Reminds Us of Political Realities

Watching Myanmar’s new president taking the oath of office this morning, a great many citizens no doubt had a feeling of “so far, so good”, despite the political turbulence that has rocked the country over the past year. After more than half a century of military rule, we watched U Win Myint, an elected civilian, succeed another elected civilian as president.

After the decades-long ordeal of authoritarian government, the recent political instability has many people worried that the current democratic transition, which only dates back to 2011, could make a U-turn.

In this light, the current moment seems especially auspicious: President U Win Myint is still just the second elected civilian president in the 56 years since the military seized power in a coup in 1962.

And the 66-year-old president brings a certain amount of “added value”: His record as a seasoned political activist and politician under military rule stretches back to 1988; prior to that he worked as a barrister. He has been a lawmaker since he won a seat in the 2012 by-election, serving as Lower House speaker since 2016. More importantly, he has been a core member of the National League for Democracy since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her co-founders formed it in September 1988. The NLD is still the country’s most popular party, having scored an unbroken series of landslide victories in the country’s last four elections—the general elections in 1990 and 2015, and by-elections in 2012 and 2017.

However, the inauguration ceremony also served as a reminder of the political realities of the country, which no one can ignore. In his oath, President U Win Myint swore to “uphold and abide by the Constitution and its laws…” Like his predecessors, he swore an oath to abide by a Constitution—drafted by the previous military regime in 2008—that has come to be seen as undemocratic.

But minutes after taking the oath, the President delivered his inaugural address on the same stage, vowing to amend the Constitution as a first step toward building a democratic federal union.

How ironic! And how typical of Myanmar’s political situation!

That’s not all. Take a look at the scene: The President took his oath alongside two vice presidents, one of whom was U Myint Swe, a former general elected by the military appointees who comprise 25 percent of lawmakers. In short, he represents the country’s powerful military.

U Win Myint took the oath in front of the members of parliament, 25 percent of whom are military officials appointed by the commander-in-chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, who was present at the inauguration on Friday morning.

Vice President U Myint Swe (left), President U Win Myint (center) and Vice President 2 U Henry Van Thio take their oaths at the Union Parliament on Friday. (Photo: President’s Office / Facebook)

Sitting with distinguished guests and elected parliamentarians, the commander-in-chief, his deputies and the military appointees all looked on as the new president was sworn in.

This is the odd reality imposed by the Constitution, which also mandates the appointment of a vice president selected by the military appointees in Parliament and three key cabinet ministers appointed by the commander-in-chief.

It’s a paradox, indeed—a political game between the elected civilian government and the powerful military. In this political climate, the main political goals of the NLD-led government under the new president will not change much.

As with his predecessor, this political situation led the new president to underscore national reconciliation—specifically between the government and the military—and the peace process in his inauguration speech.

But there is one important thing U Win Myint must understand. After two years of NLD rule, he must be pragmatic. The economy is more important to the daily lives of the population than politics. He seems to be aware of this.

Unlike former President U Htin Kyaw, whose inauguration took place two years to the day before that of U Win Myint, the new president cited improving the socio-economic conditions of the people, along with ensuring the rule of law, as his number one priorities, rather than national reconciliation, peace and amending the Constitution to build up a democratic federal union.

Over the two years since the NLD took office in March 2016, many people from all walks of life have consistently complained that the economy has deteriorated under the NLD and that their businesses are dying. This is largely due to the fact that the NLD-led government under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor prioritized political matters such as the peace process over the economy.

But the president raised economic issues on his first day in office. Now the people of Myanmar will have to wait and see what he does in the coming weeks and months.

Beyond political matters, the president called for an attitude and mindset change on the part of the entire population in order to ensure the success of the democratic transition, which is still in its infancy. He said, “It’s vital for the public and civil servants to change their mindsets and fixed habits,” referring to the outmoded attitudes and habits that defined the previous military and authoritarian regimes going back decades.

The president said he would supervise government departments that have been slow to implement reform. Those specific points have drawn cheers from many people in the country as people are still suffering under the old bureaucratic system and old-style civil servants.

He also vowed to reform the judicial system, fight corruption, take steps to combat the illegal drug trade and manage the country’s budget so as to eliminate waste. The president also pledged to uphold human rights.

U Win Myint is aware of how his country’s image has declined due to authorities’ human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, which forced over 600,000 Muslims to flee to Bangladesh last year. In his speech, he vowed to work hard to raise the dignity of Myanmar citizens and the image of the country on the international stage.

The new president faces challenges bigger than any the country has seen since the NLD took office in March 2016. It is not immediately clear how he will solve these gigantic problems and achieve the government’s political and economic goals. But the president has to get to work right after making his speech. Otherwise, his three-year tenure won’t be sufficient.

As a decisive and disciplined Lower House speaker, U Win Myint proved that he is not a wishy-washy person.

President U Win Myint seems to have rolled up his sleeves with the intention of getting to work on the goals he has set. The entire nation and the world will be watching closely to see if his actions match the promises he made this morning.