President Htin Kyaw: Missing in Action

By The Irrawaddy 2 June 2016

The National League for Democracy (NLD)—which weathered over two decades in opposition to military dictatorship, with the death and imprisonment of scores of its members—assumed power at the end of March, after a landslide win in the November general election.

Ever since, the Burmese people and the international community have been eager for clarity and detail on the NLD’s intended policies—its roadmap for deepening, or recalibrating, the political and economic reforms launched under the previous administration.

Htin Kyaw, Burma’s new president, gave a notably short speech during his inauguration. In the course of three minutes, he delivered broad-brush promises to the nation: “Our new government will implement national reconciliation, deliver peace throughout the country, develop a constitution that could pave the way towards a democratic union, and enhance living standards.”

This is not enough. The Burmese public deserves to know more about the intended policies of President Htin Kyaw’s new government.

Htin Kyaw is a man of reputed good character, but he is missing in action. Executive power (besides what has been retained by the military) is in the hands of Burma’s charismatic de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was declared State Counselor in April, a position which gives her broad access to parliament and all branches of government.

Due to the 2008 constitution, Suu Kyi cannot become president, because her sons are British citizens and therefore “owe allegiance to a foreign power,” but everyone in Burma knows she holds the keys to government decision-making. This represents a serious institutional flaw, since President Htin Kyaw is allotted supreme executive power under the constitution.

There is no question about Suu Kyi’s popularity, and her ability and capacity to lead, but she needs a team of competent managers to lead a country that has been ruined under a corrupt and repressive military dictatorship. These competent managers should have sufficient powers to deliver policy in line with a coherent vision of the country’s future.

More importantly, they need to keep the public informed and engage stakeholders regarding the government’s plans and objectives. Regular and focused messaging has so far been missing from Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi’s government.

In every democracy, governments must communicate and coordinate with key constituencies, stakeholders and the public—using a variety of channels and media platforms—in order to strengthen its policies and objectives. There must be a constant flow of information to complement a coherent action plan. Government leaders and ministers should demonstrate that they understand, and wish to coordinate, with the public in order to achieve their aims.

This is known as strategic communication. As in the State of the Union address delivered annually by US presidents, President Htin Kyaw needs to speak to the Burmese public about the government’s mission and its vision for the country.