FOR SOME Myanmar observers, last week’s news that President U Htin Kyaw was officially standing down from his role didn’t come as a huge surprise. For about the past year, rumours have swirled that the 71-year-old was facing health issues, and wanted to enjoy a well-earned retirement.
Days after the announcement, Htin Kyaw’s wife, parliamentarian Daw Su Su Lwin, denied reports that her husband had resigned due to ill health, saying that the move had been “planned in advance”. Speaking to reporters in Nay Pyi Taw, she went one step further, saying that when Htin Kyaw accepted the role, the plan was for him to be president for a few months.
Whatever the reasons behind Htin Kyaw’s resignation, today Myanmar’s 10th president since independence was sworn into office. U Win Myint stood down as Pyithu Hluttaw speaker on March 21, almost immediately after Htin Kyaw’s resignation was announced. Two days later he was elected as the lower house’s candidate for vice president, and on Wednesday the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw elected him president.
Based on what we know about Win Myint – who, like many National League for Democracy stalwarts, was arrested for his role in the 1988 anti-government protests – it appears likely that he will be a very different president to Htin Kyaw, who had a largely ceremonial role under State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Win Myint is a strong-willed politician. On more than one occasion he has reprimanded military lawmakers in parliament, and in early 2017 he chastised an NLD lawmaker for reading a newspaper during a hluttaw session. Days before that incident, he kicked another MP out of parliament for failing to adhere to strict rules regarding uniform (the MP was wearing a blue collarless shirt, instead of the prescribed white).
How this transfers to him being leader of a country is unclear, but it is unlikely he will stay in the background, as Htin Kyaw appeared happy to do.
Win Myint’s accession presents an opportunity for the government. It’s no secret that Aung San Suu Kyi is overburdened. Since coming to office, there is seemingly no issue in this country’s challenging transition in which she has not played a crucial role, from the economy to the peace process and the crisis in Rakhine State.
The recent cancellation of a planned speech in Australia, reportedly due to ill health, was symptomatic of the burdens that her schedule has placed on her. And this is nothing new: in January, a government official was forced to deny rumours that she was sick.
It is also common knowledge that she relies on a small team of advisors on many issues. The challenges facing her government are only likely to grow and her inner circle in government needs to expand accordingly. Win Myint, who has gained considerable experience in his two years as lower house speaker, should be a handy addition to her team.
The NLD must also take this opportunity to develop a new generation of leaders. Almost six years since it entered parliament, only a handful of people who were not part of its early days have been able to move up the ranks.
As the 2020 election appears on the horizon, it is not unreasonable to ask how much longer Aung San Suu Kyi, who turns 73 in June, and other senior officials will be able to commit their time and energy to politics.
And there is a large pool to draw on. Myanmar has a wealth of civil society actors who are passionate about contributing positively to the country’s transition.
Until now, these voices have largely been ignored by the administration, but they are a group of men and women who can help the country move forward through this challenging period. The NLD would be well advised to reach out and benefit from their experience and enthusiasm.
This editorial first appeared in the March 29 issue of Frontier.