Can Myanmar’s new president deliver?
Htin Kyaw, Myanmar’s president for almost two years under the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, resigned on March 21 for health reasons, and on March 30 Win Myint was elected to the post.
Win Myint is an experienced politician, having been elected three times since 1990’s general elections. As speaker of the Lower House, he was known for being outspoken on the House floor, as well as ensuring that other members of the House used their time on the floor effectively. Furthermore, Win Myint has fought hard against corruption. Lke the previous president, Win Myint is a confidant of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
In his inaugural speech, Win Myint promised to work towards national reconciliation, improving human rights, and amending the constitution penned by the military. These issues are of immense significance to the social, economic, and political development of the country. Despite his political acumen, his three promises are difficult to achieve, especially with the military and Suu Kyi in the picture.
In his inaugural speech, Win Myint promised to work towards national reconciliation, improving human rights, and amending the constitution penned by the military
To begin with, national reconciliation is under the direct authority of Suu Kyi via the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre. Suu Kyi herself has limited decision-making power because the military dominates these talks. Since her election, Suu Kyi has been unable to win the trust of the ethnic armies fighting against the military and convince them to sign ceasefire agreements. Because of this scenario, Win Myint might not be included in the peace process immediately.
Secondly, human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslims are widespread, to say the least. Since the mass exodus of the Rohingyas last year to Bangladesh after the national military launched an offensive against them, many of the abuses have been documented by international agencies and media organisations. However, there are still many citizens whose human rights are violated regularly but the international community is largely unaware of it. The reason for this is that access to the regions controlled by the ethnic militias is resricted, making it difficult for aid agencies to get a clear picture of the situation. Moreover, there is also the issue of child soldiers in the national military. Punishing child soldiers for crimes they have committed is not appropriate. Instead, those who recruit child soldiers must be punished. Thus, “protecting human rights” is easier said than done.
Finally, amending the country’s constitution is required if the government is to be recognized as truly democratic. However, 25% of the parliamentary seats are controlled by the military in addition to critical portfolios like defense, border control, and home affairs. Win Myint will require the support of some military-appointed members to amend the constitution. Suu Kyi, with the mass support that she enjoys, has been unable to change the constitution since coming to power. Likewise, even with his seniority, Win Myint might not be able to convince the military to amend the constitution anytime soon.
Given his straightforward and assertive personality, his working relationship with Suu Kyi and the military will determine if he will deliver on his promises. Suu Kyi has primarily preferred a president who follows her orders with unquestioning loyalty. Former president Htin Kyaw did just that. However, this approach has not improved Myanmar’s condition in any way.
If Win Myint wants to bring about change, he will have to take a different approach than his predecessor. In fact, experts believe that Win Myint will make use of all the executive powers he has at his disposal. This is likely to bring about a power shift in the government and may also create friction between Suu Kyi, the military, and Win Myint. The worst result of this power struggle will be a lack of progress on any front. In the end, Myanmar’s population will continue to suffer.
Although the people of Myanmar still consider her an icon of democracy, Suu Kyi has failed on all the three fronts discussed above and has been subjected to immense international criticism. Trust in Suu Kyi, once seen as as a beacon of hope who would usher in democracy when she took office, has also been eroded.
The election of a new president is an opportunity for Myanmar to make progress in the right direction. Both the military and Suu Kyi should allow Win Myint to take decisions independently. Win Myint’s promises and his stand against corruption have given the Burmese citizens a new hope for democracy and justice to survive in their country.