Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi Denied Myanmar’s Presidency

Fellows 2016

By Lucy Kafanov

March 11, 2016

Also published by USA Today

She is the iconic face of democracy in a country crushed by more than a half-century of military rule — a former political prisoner, Nobel laureate and the head of the National League for Democracy party, which saw a landslide victory in November.

But of all the titles granted to Aung San Suu Kyi in recent years, the president of Myanmar, for now, will not be one of them.

Her party ended speculation Thursday about a Suu Kyi presidency by nominating her longtime confidant U Htin Kyaw as the country’s likely first democratically chosen head of state. Another nominee, Henry Van Thio, is expected to become vice president. The military, which controls a quarter of the legislature, will also nominate a candidate.

After a brief vetting process, lawmakers will vote later this month, and the new president will be installed April 1.

Aung San Suu Kyi, center, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, arrives to participate in a gathering with newly elected lawmakers of her party on March 10, 2016, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. The NLD, which won November general elections by a landslide, nominated two Suu Kyi loyalists to contest the president's post. Photo: Aung Shine Oo, AP.

In a statement issued hours before the nomination was revealed, Suu Kyi asked supporters to rally around the party’s decision.

“I would like to appeal for people to stand by the NLD with wisdom and farsightedness,” she said. “This is an important step in implementing the desires and expectations of voters who enthusiastically supported the NLD.”

For months, Myanmar was abuzz with expectation that “The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is known here, would achieve the impossible: negotiate a deal with the military that would allow her to serve as president despite a constitutional provision barring her from the role.

While several rounds of closed-door talks failed to clear a path to power, Suu Kyi has vowed to rule Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, by proxy, from a position “above” the president.

The army will continue to play a key role in the incoming government by retaining control of three powerful ministries — defense, interior and border security — while also wielding influence over Myanmar’s economy through military-owned conglomerates and businesses with close ties to outgoing President Thein Sein's government.

Thant Myint-U, a historian who has advised the government and the grandson of the former United Nations secretary-general U Thant, said the developments are part of a political change that “is real and will transform the country, but in exactly what direction is still difficult to say.”

“We’re still working in a constitutional framework first conceived by the then military regime nearly 20 years ago,” he said. “It's far from a democracy, but it is the arrangement that has allowed the army to take a big step back from day-to-day administration and allow for a degree of political freedom that we haven't seen in over half a century.”

Htin Kyaw, 69, the party's presidential candidate, is an Oxford graduate who runs the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, an education charity named after Suu Kyi’s mother that assists people in Myanmar's poorest areas. A former classmate of Suu Kyi’s at a high school in Yangon, he is seen as a party loyalist whose wife is a prominent legislator.

The party's other nominee,  Van Thio, is an ethnic Chin member of parliament who could play a key role in helping resolve long-standing ethnic conflict within Myanmar.

The new government faces many challenges that include multiple ethnic separatist insurgencies, poverty and corruption, plus economic stagnation stemming from years of neglect by the ruling military junta.

The country is also under pressure from the international community to address the plight of the stateless Muslim Rohingya — a long-oppressed group that has been denied citizenship rights and largely confined to displacement camps after a wave of anti-Muslim violence in 2012.

It is unclear what formal role Suu Kyi, 70, will play in the new government. Some analysts suggested that she could be angling to be foreign minister or might attempt to pull the strings as a senior minister in the cabinet. Her party has declined to comment about Suu Kyi's next step.

In Yangon, the euphoria expressed by pro-democracy supporters after the Nov. 8 election has been replaced with cautious optimism.

“Many of us had hoped that (Suu Kyi) would find a way to lead the country, but it was obvious that the military was not going to make this easy,” said Kaung Myat Linn, a political science major at Yangon University. “This is a good step toward democracy, but we need to stay vigilant. The army still has a lot of power, and things can always take a turn for the worse.”

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the International Reporting Project.