28 October 2016
Aung San Suu Kyi (center) may not be president, but she is unquestionably Myanmar's ultimate leader. Photo: Reuters
Aung San Suu Kyi (center) may not be president, but she is unquestionably Myanmar's ultimate leader. Photo: Reuters

Myanmar’s puppeteer-in-chief

“We woke up free, democratized and wealthy.”

So said a friend writing from Yangon, responding to a query about the newly minted president-elect of Myanmar (also known as Burma).

It was a line loaded with barbs, because the country is none of the three.

Myanmar’s parliament elected a man named Htin Kyaw, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), as its next president. The military’s nominee will become vice president.

Htin Kyaw’s credentials check all the right boxes: a great education, both at home and abroad; a great upbringing, as the son of a Burmese scholar and poet; a stint in prison, as a political prisoner when the junta was much more concerned about others falling in line.

Perhaps more important is that he had long been Suu Kyi’s aide and confidant — the kind of man who was always nearby during her public appearances, dressed in a spotless white shirt though suitably inconspicuous.

Many in Myanmar believe that their president-to-be will, in practice, report to Suu Kyi, and that she will be the de facto leader of the country. Suu Kyi hasn’t been shy about highlighting her hand in Htin Kyaw’s rise and stated she had chosen Htin Kyaw for his truthfulness and loyalty. She has also said that she herself would lead the country in a position above the president.

Public office isn’t part of Htin Kyaw’s résumé, and it looks like he has never given a political speech, yet he seems popular with the public, perhaps because he is so close to Myanmar’s favorite public figure.

Democratic reforms offered the public a chance to vote in November, and their ballots gave them the chance to choose their parliamentary representatives, who in turn choose the national leader.

Of course, the road to democracy is never smooth, and power never leaves hands without a very, very good reason. Even though the military has, on paper, stepped back, one-quarter of the seats in Myanmar’s parliament are guaranteed to unelected military officials.

When the NLD utilized Suu Kyi’s personal popularity as its most effective campaign tool and took nearly 80 percent of the contested seats in the November elections last year, it must have come as a great shock to the military men, whether they were still in uniform or outfits a bit more tailored.

It was never an option for Suu Kyi to become Myanmar’s president. The generals were shrewd enough to make sure of that when they were writing the country’s new laws.

One of the articles in Myanmar’s constitution disqualifies anyone whose children “owes allegiance to a foreign power”. Since her children hold British passports, she is automatically excluded from being nominated as a presidential candidate, and amendments to the constitution can only be made with the support of the military’s parliamentary representatives (who have no love for Suu Kyi).

However, from her public statements, it looks like The Lady is perfectly comfortable where she is, in control of her political party and with the prospect of landing a cabinet position. There is little doubt that she will, in fact, be the ultimate leader of the country, even if not in name. After all, she has been quite blunt in saying the president of Myanmar will have “no authority”.

The prisoner of conscience and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has come a long way to become puppeteer-in-chief.

The Southeast Asian nation is plagued with all sorts of problems. Racial tensions run high in various corners of the country, culminating in armed conflict. Current and former generals still control major industries, like jade and gold mining, and pocket the wealth of the nation. An economy that depends on agriculture and natural resources leaves much space for exploitation and is incredibly vulnerable to climate change.

The United Nations Development Program reports 26 percent of Myanmar’s population lives in poverty, with those living in rural regions twice as likely to exist at poverty levels. Drug addiction, particularly to opium, heroin and meth, is rampant.

That’s not to say life in Myanmar hasn’t improved at all. It is a country pulling itself out of economic stagnation, rife with business opportunities for those with the right capital and motivations. But about 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas and, as mentioned, still relies on agriculture to sustain a living.

Freedom, democracy, wealth? They will see none of the three any time soon, and their heroine’s polished image might not last for long.

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