An expert's point of view on a current event.

Burma’s Puppeteer-in-Chief Takes Charge

Aung San Suu Kyi won’t be her country’s next president. But she’s not about to let that stop her from running the show.

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At last we know the identity of the man who is likely to become Burma’s next president: Htin Kyaw. You’ve probably never heard of him before — but don’t be surprised. That’s part of the plan.

Earlier this week, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), named Htin Kyaw as the party’s leading candidate. The NLD gained the right to name the president after its landslide victory in last November’s historic election. Even so, Aung San Suu Kyi can’t be president herself. The current constitution, which was designed by the military junta that used to rule the country, blocks her from taking the top job. The generals built in a provision excluding anyone with a foreign spouse or children — a measure that was clearly intended for Suu Kyi, who was once married to a Briton, and whose sons are British citizens.

Yet the overwhelming majority of Burmese voters made it very clear that they wanted the Lady, as she’s often called, to lead the country regardless. And Aung San Suu Kyi knows this very well. Before the election she made it known that she had every intention of running the government in the event that her party won. She declared publicly that she would “be above the president” and “make all decisions.” She even went so far as to say that the president would “have no authority,” since she’d really be the one in charge. Her choice of Htin Kyaw, 69, is her way of following through on that vow.

Htin Kyaw, though undoubtedly competent enough, is certainly not a huge political personality in his own right. He’s a former high school classmate of Aung San Suu Kyi who graduated from Rangoon University with a degree in economics in 1968. He went on to work in the government, but gradually become closer to the pro-democracy opposition, and in 1992 he resigned to go to work at the Lady’s side. He became one of her close personal aides, sometimes even working as her driver. (Burmese social media went crazy this week when foreign news reports featured this aspect of his past in their headlines about the nomination.) A senior executive in the NLD leader’s charitable foundation, he is widely regarded as humble and polite. Even a number of sources close to the military told me they regard him as a good man.

If the NLD can be said to have something like its own aristocracy, Htin Kyaw definitely qualifies as a member. His father, the late Min Thuwun, a highly regarded poet, was elected to parliament back in 1990 (though he never took his seat, since the vote was effectively annulled by the junta). Htin Kyaw’s father-in-law, the late U Lwin, was one of the co-founders of the NLD. Htin Kyaw’s wife, Su Su Lwin, is one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s most trusted political gatekeepers, and currently holds a seat of her own in the lower house of parliament, where she also serves as the chairwoman of the International Relations Committee.

The Lady has made it very clear why she decided to choose Htin Kyaw. “The person must be loyal to the party,” she declared in a meeting with the party’s parliamentarians. “We give priority to loyalists.” Given this context, it seems entirely justified to describe Htin Kyaw as a “puppet president” whose primary function will be carrying out the orders of the NLD leader.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s emphasis on loyalty has a somewhat ironic ring for those who know the country’s history. In the early years of military rule back in the 1970s, then-dictator General Ne Win also singled out loyalty as the most important condition for public service. His notorious slogan was “Lu gaung, lu daw,” which translates as “good man first, smart man second” (a reversal, it should be noted, of a traditional saying that placed “smartness” first). For the general, “goodness” meant above all “loyalty,” and he filled all key posts in the government accordingly. Competence was subordinated to fidelity to the dictator’s wishes. Corruption and abuse of power proliferated correspondingly.

The Lady has applied the same loyalty test to her second key personnel decision. Thanks to the complicated provisions of the constitution, the NLD, by virtue of its majority in the upper house of parliament, also has the right to nominate a candidate to one of two vice-presidential posts. For this position Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen Henry Van Thio, 57. Her pick comes as something of a shock. Van Thio, a representative of the Chin ethnic minority, was a long-serving military officer who only joined the NLD one year ago. He has no record of active involvement in the pro-democracy movement and has played no apparent role in any of the ethnic minority political parties or rebel groups. (Intriguingly, he also happens to be a Christian, which would make him one of the very few religious outsiders at the higher levels of this overwhelmingly Buddhist country.)

So why him? The answer is that she clearly wanted an appointee who can credibly claim to represent the ethnic minority groups, but who owes no allegiance to any of the established ethnic parties. He will owe his loyalty entirely to her.

Aung San Suu Kyi runs little risk by nominating a relative unknown for the post. The two vice presidents are essentially figureheads in terms of actual power. The one possible exception may arise from their role in the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council, of which both vice presidents are members. The constitution vests enormous power in this body, but until now the military has seen little need to take advantage of it, since the generals already dominated the state. Now that the NLD is taking control of the government (at least nominally), the military may be tempted to start making greater use of the council.

Speaking of the generals, they, too, have given primacy to the loyalty factor when making their own vice presidential choice (as assured them by the constitution, which gives certain special prerogatives to the military). They have picked a former top general, Myint Swe. Currently he serves as the chief minister (essentially a governor) of Rangoon, Burma’s largest city. He is known to be a confidant of the former dictator, Senior General Than Swe, who ruled the country until early 2011, when he stepped down to pave the way for the current political transition. Myint Swe’s nomination shows that the old man still plays an important role behind the scenes.

Pro-democracy activists view Myint Swe’s nomination skeptically. He played a prominent role in the 2007 crackdown on the protest movement led by Buddhist monks (the so-called Saffron Revolution), and more recently he has been at the focus of corruption allegations. None of this seems to have deterred Than Shwe, who appears to have been worried mainly about ensuring that the vice presidential post is filled by someone from his own entourage — someone who can presumably guarantee the future security of his family and his business interests. For Than Shwe, just as for Aung San Suu Kyi, it is loyalty that counts above all — rather more, it would seem, than building and strengthening democratic institutions.

On March 11, the lower house of parliament confirmed Htin Kyaw’s nomination for the post of vice president. On March 15, both houses of the assembly will choose the president from among the three nominees. No one should expect any further surprises, since we already know how the jobs are likely to be filled. Now we can look ahead to the next stage of the process — when Aung San Suu Kyi, the puppeteer-in-chief, will start pulling the strings.

In the photo, badges bearing portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi and the star and peacock symbol of National League for Democracy (NLD) are seen for sale at the NLD headquarters in Rangoon on March 8, 2016.

Photo credit: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

Min Zin is a PhD candidate in the political science department at University of California, Berkeley. He is a regular contributor to Democracy Lab's blog, Transitions.