Historic vote gives Myanmar first civilian President in decades

Myanmar is undergoing a dramatic transformation from an isolated and repressed pariah state to a rapidly opening aspiring democracy.

AFP| Last Updated: Mar 15, 2016, 23:47 PM IST
Historic vote gives Myanmar first civilian President in decades

Naypyidaw: Myanmar got its first civilian president in decades on Tuesday after lawmakers elected a close aide of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is expected to hold the real reins of power in the formerly junta-run nation.

Htin Kyaw, 69, hailed his elevation to the top post as "Suu Kyi`s victory", a clear nod to her plan that he serve as a proxy for the Nobel laureate who is constitutionally barred from becoming president.

MPs erupted into applause after the result was announced following a lengthy ballot count by hand in the capital Naypyidaw, in which Htin Kyaw took 360 of 652 votes cast.

Myanmar is undergoing a dramatic transformation from an isolated and repressed pariah state to a rapidly opening aspiring democracy.

The White House hailed his election as "an important step forward" in that democratic transition.

"We look forward to working with his govt," Ben Rhodes, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter.

Suu Kyi`s National League for Democracy won a thumping victory at elections in November, allowing her party to dominate Myanmar`s two legislative houses.

But the military remains a powerful force and has refused to change a clause in the junta-era constitution which bars her from the presidency.

The veteran activist has instead vowed to rule "above" the next leader. Her choice of Htin Kyaw is seen as a testament to her absolute faith in his loyalty.

"This is sister Aung San Suu Kyi`s victory," the newly-elected president told reporters after the vote. "Thank you."Htin Kyaw will be sworn in on March 30, replacing incumbent Thein Sein. It will be the first time Myanmar has had a civilian president since 1962, when the military seized power.

Thein Sein, a former general, led a quasi-civilian reformist government for the last five years that has been praised for moving the nation out of the shadow of outright military rule.

For many MPs from Suu Kyi`s party Tuesday`s vote was a vindication of their long years of struggle for democracy under the repressive former junta, which locked up hundreds of dissidents as it tried to stifle criticism.

The NLD is still haunted by its 1990 election victory, which was snatched away by the generals.

Zin Mar Aung, an NLD MP who was involved in 1988 protests and is herself a former political prisoner, termed the vote "very historic".

She said the election of Htin Kyaw, who was also detained by the former junta, made her think of their long struggle and "the way we have marched to here since more than 20 years ago".

But others expressed disappointment their leader would not be taking the top post.

"We all want to see Aung San Suu Kyi be the president," NLD MP Myo Zaw Aung told AFP. "But so far, it is not reality."

Tuesday`s election also confirmed the two other candidates as vice presidents -- retired general Myint Swe, who is seen as a hardliner ally of former strongman Than Shwe and is on Washington`s sanctions list, and ethnic Chin MP Henry Van Thio.Suu Kyi, 70, enjoys unrivalled popularity both as the daughter of the country`s independence hero and as a central figure in the decades-long democracy struggle.

It is not yet clear what role she plans to take or how she will manage her relationship with the new president.

She is barred from top political office because she married and had children with a foreigner, British academic Michael Aris, who died in 1999 while she was under house arrest.

Months of negotiations with army chief Min Aung Hlaing failed to remove the charter clause that blocks her.

In central Yangon people crowded into teashops to watch the vote live on television.

"He was chosen by Mother Suu. Now he is our president. He will be a good president because he has been working with Mother Suu for many years," said Daw Mya, 60, a vegetable vendor.

While little known outside Myanmar, Htin Kyaw commands considerable respect inside the country, partly because his father was a legendary writer and early member of the NLD.

Though he has never previously stood for political office, he is married to sitting NLD MP Su Su Lwin, whose late father was the party`s respected spokesman, and he helps run Suu Kyi`s charitable foundation.

A new cabinet, set to be announced at the end of the month, is expected to include figures from across the political spectrum as Suu Kyi tries to promote national reconciliation.

It will face many challenges, including poverty, civil wars in ethnic minority borderlands and decrepit infrastructure.

But one of the most crucial tasks will be to manage the relationship with the military, which retains significant power including control of the vital home, defence and border ministries.