Htin Kyaw was sworn in as the president of Myanmar on Wednesday. As a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), his inauguration marks an important step forward in Myanmar’s transition from a repressive military dictatorship to a democracy. It is tempting, with the ascension of a democratically elected leader, to celebrate a triumphant end to this transition. Yet the realities in Myanmar are complex, and the country still has a long way to go.
Myanmar, located in Southeast Asia and bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Decades of dictatorship and economic mismanagement have left the economy in tatters, and ethnic conflict has plagued parts of the country for years. The wounds of the past went untreated until 2011, when the military junta announced that it would renounce power and transition to a civilian government. At the same time, Myanmar, which had been crippled by stringent economic sanctions, was opened to the global economy.
The roots of the decades-long political and economic stagnation lie in the military junta founded in in 1962 by Ne Win. In a military coup d’état, he established his own government and began to promote economic policies known as the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” This model, which advocated Burmese self-sufficiency, closed the country to the global economy and propelled millions into poverty. When, in 1988, failed monetary policies rendered the currency worthless, the people decided that they’d had enough. Millions took to the street in protest.
As a result of these protests, Ne Win’s dictatorship was overthrown and replaced by another military dictatorship that was based on an organization called the “State Law and Order Restoration Council.” At the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s founder Aung San, returned to her country. In response to the political chaos, she founded the NLD and became an active leader of the organized pro-democracy movement. The NLD secured an electoral victory in 1990, but the results were dismissed and Ms. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. She later went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, and today she is arguably the most powerful person in the country.
In 2011, the military junta decided to transition the leadership of the country to civilian rule. They drafted a “roadmap to democracy, freed Ms. Suu Kyi from house arrest, and held elections. Although this roadmap set Myanmar on a path to civilian rule, the military was careful to retain significant powers for itself. It drafted a new constitution in which twenty five percent of the seats in the legislature are reserved for military officials, and many powerful ministries of the executive branch are controlled by the military as well. The constitution also contained a provision that prohibited politicians whose children hold foreign passports from holding the presidency. Considering Ms. Suu Kyi has two British sons, it is generally accepted that this provision was included to prevent Ms. Suu Kyi from becoming president.
Because the NLD boycotted the 2010 elections in response to what it considered unacceptable electoral laws, it was not until last November that its popularity was tested in democratic elections. Ms. Suu Kyi led her party to a resounding victory. Winning 86 percent of the contested seats in the Hluttaw, Myanmar’s parliament, it has secured the majority that is needed to appoint the president. Not only does this represent a major victory for democratic politics in the country, but it also indicates that the people of Myanmar have rejected the dictatorship in favor of democracy.
Had Ms. Suu Kyi been allowed to become Myanmar’s president, she, not Htin Kyaw, would have been sworn in on Wednesday. But regardless of who holds the title, it is Ms. Suu Kyi who will truly be in charge of the country. She is the leader of the NLD and has already declared that any presidential appointee will answer directly to her. In fact, she promised that she would be “above the president.” The appointment of Htin Klaw, a trusted friend and loyal ally to Ms. Suu Kyi, certainly fulfills this promise. In fact, Ms. Suu Kyi has already taken considerable official power. She has become the head of four ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education. Also, the Hluttaw passed a motion today that created a new position for Ms. Suu Kyi that is quite similar to that of a Prime Minister. Thus it is clear that, despite Htin Klaw’s inauguration, it is Ms. Suu Kyi who is truly in charge in Myanmar.
Yet in spite of the victory for Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD, obstacles remain. Reluctant to renounce its power completely, the military is still an extremely influential force in Myanmar. Due to its control of twenty five percent of the Hluttaw, the military will be able to prevent the NLD from changing the constitution. The Military’s control of very powerful government ministries also poses an obstacle to the NLD administration. Thus despite the NLD’s appointment of Htin Kyaw as president, it is not in complete control of the country. Rather, it is sharing power with the military. Hence the military still has the power to make or break Myanmar’s transition to democracy and economic renewal. So while the ascension of an NLD president is a strong indication that the people of Myanmar are eager to see a democratic future, we can only hope that the military is listening.