This morning, Myanmar’s resident nobel laureate and political hero Aung San Suu Kyi selected her preferred presidential candidate. The Financial Times:
Mr Htin Kyaw, a 69-year-old who studied computer science at the Unversity of London, has advised Ms Aung San Suu Kyi since the dark days when she spent 15 years under house arrest in the 1990s and 2000s. The new president will from April 1 lead a government to replace the military-backed administration, which has held power since the ruling junta of almost 50 years stepped down in 2011.
Mr Htin Kyaw’s nomination is final confirmation that Ms Aung San Suu Kyi will be denied the honour of formally leading the first government since the 1960s to be chosen after a full, free and fair election. The NLD made a late effort to use its sweeping mandate from November’s poll to bargain with the still-powerful military for a change in the constitution, but talks broke down. Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has said she will make decisions “above the president”, who will have “no authority”.
Democracy and human rights activists have been cheering Myanmar’s transition to democracy over the past few years, eagerly awaiting the new opposition government that was voted into power last fall. Yet the transition from the old military regime to the new elected one isn’t going so smoothly, according to a Reuters report published yesterday:
A deepening rift has opened between Myanmar’s powerful military and Aung San Suu Kyi, sources say, threatening the democracy leader’s prospects for forming a successful government even as parliament prepares to nominate presidential candidates on Thursday.
With the date fast approaching for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to take power, efforts to portray the party and its former foes as working cordially together towards a smooth transfer of power have faltered, according to politicians and officials familiar with the situation.
“She believed that she would be able to work with the military, but after the last meeting with the commander-in-chief, she realized that she cannot negotiate with them,” said a senior NLD Upper House lawmaker briefed on the talks.
Suu Kyi’s efforts to build a new government that the military can live with are encountering resistance, and the disagreements aren’t just over serious matters: Reuters reports that Suu Kyi and the generals squabbled over parking spaces for the handover ceremony. Divisions and distrust clearly run deep. Win Oo, a former member of the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, tells Reuters, “The two sides are now in the state of cold war. It’s a political killing field.”
There’s been plenty of reason to worry that Myanmar’s transition to democracy won’t go as smoothly as many hope, and that the progress so far might even be undone. Between ethnic divisions and the entrenched military-allied bureaucracy, Suu Kyi has her hands full. But there’s also the problem that she and her political allies have never run Myanmar before. Without expertise in statecraft and on-the-ground relationships, it’s difficult to manage a government. If the military—which has that know-how—isn’t willing to cooperate, things could fall apart very quickly.
Myanmar has an important geopolitical role to play. The military has deep ties to China, and Suu Kyi has indicated an openness to working with the West—and Washington in particular. The democratization of Myanmar would be a big success of President Obama’s (and Secretary Clinton’s), and one of the benefits is that Beijing would no longer have as much influence in Southeast Asia. The United States and its allies hope Suu Kyi and the military find a way to get along because, having come so close, they don’t want to let Myanmar fall through their hands.
This isn’t the first time Myanmar has tried to transition to democracy. In 1990, the military and the NLD party tried to work out a more democratic arrangement. But that process ended in violence, with Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies locked in prison cells. Things have been going much better this time, but reports that negotiations are falling through are cause for worry.