Thursday marks the second anniversary of President U Htin Kyaw’s election by the Parliament. A comparison of photographs taken in March 2016 with those taken this year shows that he has aged markedly; he looks noticeably paler and bears the telltale signs of stress. His health is unmistakably in decline.
The then 70-year-old was the first civilian head of state elected since 1962 — his five immediate predecessors were military officers. When his election was announced in Parliament, the National League for Democracy party’s lawmakers erupted in applause. Among the party’s supporters, there were scenes of jubilation across the country at the election of this confidant of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
In his critics’ eyes, this soft-spoken elderly man is merely a “puppet president”. While he is formally the head of state and constitutionally the highest authority in the land, the amount of actual power he wields is questionable. “The Lady”, as the State Counsellor is known, had already made it known during the election campaign that she would be “above the president”, as the Constitution bans her from holding the office. It is an open secret in today’s Myanmar who has the final say on matters of state. (Military power is another matter all together.)
Inevitably perhaps, since he took office at the end of March 2016, U Htin Kyaw, along with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has ruled over a country in near total disarray after more than five decades of military rule that favored loyalty over competence. They have faced resistance from ministerial officials, most of them installed by the previous quasi-military government.
One of the NLD’s top men, U Win Htein, once expressed how “annoying” it was to deal with “horses trained by previous people”.
“We are the new jockeys riding old horses, trying very hard to take them in the direction we want. They do what we want in our presence but do something different when we turn our backs,” he said.
Apart from this resistance, peace with the ethnic armed groups that have been warring with the central government for decades remains elusive. The Rohingya issue in northern Rakhine State has been the biggest headache for U Htin Kyaw and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi so far, amid mounting international pressure of the kind Myanmar has never seen before. No wonder they both look weary.
In his inauguration message, the president pledged that his government would try to meet the people’s hopes while carrying out his obligation to implement, as the head of state, national reconciliation, the national peace process and a redrafting of a federal, democratic Union-oriented Constitution and to improve people’s lives.
Two years on, sadly, he still hasn’t achieved any tangible results. This doesn’t mean his government has been idle. Since the day his government assumed its duties, it has undeniably tried to make those things happen. But with few results to point to, it needs to come up with better implementation strategies.
On the first anniversary of the NLD’s government last year, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi claimed that “having a pure civilian government” was a significant change and boasted that during its first term, the NLD government has shown itself to be the least corrupt government Myanmar has ever seen.
That’s still true. But as time goes by, we need to see progress on more than those two fronts. There are few signs of any breakthroughs, however. As Myanmar prepares to ring in the traditional New Year next month, the majority of Myanmar’s people, who heartily voted for the NLD, wish you a healthy and productive year, Mr. President!