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Former First Lady is tipped to become Myanmar’s first female President

SUNDAY SPECIAL-ENG-22-11-2020 (1)
Myanmar's state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and former first lady Su Su Lwin (R)

Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy’s electoral victory has emboldened its leaders to press for major changes, including changes at the very top level. There is likely to be a new President and a new-look Cabinet. In the meantime, there is also likely to be a change of guard in the country’s all-powerful military, the Tatmadaw.

So far, the NLD leadership and the government are tight-lipped on the changes that could be in the pipeline. They are undeterred by the growing cacophony of speculation in the media and social media as to who is being tipped to take the top posts and ministries. But hints are beginning to point to a fundamental shift in policy and approach.

At the root of this changed approach is a return to NLD’s activist origins best encapsulated in the views and vision of the now deceased journalist, Win Tin, who was one of the key founding members of the NLD. He had served nineteen years in prison, and steadfastly refused to bow to military harassment and pressure. For him the NLD was a “peoples’ party” a notion he clung to until his death in 2014. It is this approach that the NLD is now re-adopting. 

There are three key NLD leaders in line to be President, according to sources close to the party’s top bosses: the current President Win Myint – who took over mid-stream from President Htin Kyaw, who ostensibly retired for health reasons after two years; Dr Zaw Myint Maung, currently Mandalay Chief Minister and effectively the NLD boss under Aung San SuuKyi’s leadership; and Su Su Lwin, a prominent NLD MP and the wife of the former President Htin Kyaw. She is also the daughter of one of the original founders of the NLD, U Lwin.

But the odds are shortening on the former first Lady Su Su Lwin becoming Myanmar’s first female President. “If she is chosen as President, we can show ASEAN and the world that there is serious change in Myanmar,” said an NLD source. “The first woman president in Myanmar, would be a very good image for Myanmar moving forward: a modernized Myanmar, where women are at the forefront of power and change in the country.” 

The other critical consideration for the party, is an overhaul of its internal dynamics, the need for a new approach and relationship with the electorate as a whole, not just its members and supporters; relations with the other political parties, especially the ethnic political parties; coordination and cooperation at the regional and state administration and parliaments; bringing in new and ‘younger blood’; and above all preparing for ‘succession’ at the very top.

Because of the peculiarities of the pro-military constitution of 2008, the country’s President cannot control the party’s day-to-day affairs. This tends to rule out Zaw Myint Maung, who as Mandalay Chief Minister has been a very effective party leader in the last few years and is the steadying-hand needed to steer the NLD through the next turbulent five years of change and internal rejuvenation. 

There is also a question hanging over his health. He was diagnosed with a form of cancer late last year, though friends and associates of his in Mandalay insist he’s virtually back to full health. 

President Win Myint, who was the lower house speaker before being elevated to the Presidency, has had a lacklustre last few years and is expected to recede into the background. He is expected to be more heavily involved in party matters along with the Mandalay Chief Minister. Some sources suggest he will become the ‘alternate’ or Deputy Speaker in the Lower House and therefore able to be active in the party.

Meanwhile, a crucial concern of the NLD will be civilian-military relations. The current Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is due to retire around the end of June next year. Speculation is also swirling on the social media about his future. It is believed that he is tempted to extend his term by another five years, as he did in early 2016, before the NLD was sworn in as the government. But this time he would find it hard to get the NLD government to accept it. The case would have to go before the National Defence and Security Council for approval, chaired by the current President. While the military members are in the majority on this body, 6 to 5, – decisions have hitherto been taken by consensus. The current government has sidelined the organ since taking office in 2016 for that reason. However, if the issue is brought before it, it will certainly cause an irreconcilable division between the two sides, precipitating a major constitutional crisis. 

“The election result is a significant rebuff to the military, and has immeasurably strengthened the NLD’s mandate for change. The military will have to think twice before openly challenging this government in future,” Dr Sasa – a leading Chin activist and member of the NLD’s election committee in Chin state told SAM. “The approach to the military must also be conciliatory and cooperative,” he added. 

Sources close to the military believe that the Senior General will reluctantly accept the post of Vice President, the one which is appointed by the military itself. The other two are elected by the Upper and Lower houses of parliament respectively, before a joint sitting of parliament elects the President from the three Vice Presidents. He may actually still be eyeing the top Presidential post, military sources suspect, but this would be a “pie in the sky” according to political analysts and diplomats based in Myanmar. 

The NLD is now in full swing sorting out its policy priorities and preparing the groundwork for the appointment of ministers to the national Cabinet and Chief Ministers for States and Regions. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar comprises seven States and seven Regions named in the 2008 Constitution, six self-administered zones and divisions, and one Union territory containing the capital Nay Pyi Taw and surrounding townships.

At a press conference earlier this week, Zaw Myint Maung said that there would be changes in key ministries at the local level, but that these will be carried out on the basis of input from the public. Some ministers and chief ministers would be reappointed, according to party insiders. 

There would be more party representation in the national cabinet, according to another central executive member. This was a bone of contention between the NLD party leaders and the Cabinet last time. This time, while there would be more political appointees. A minister’s role is to make decisions on political affairs, so there should be some politicians in office. “But we also need experts in various fields to contribute towards nation-building. An equal proportion of politicians and industry experts will be selected to fill the ministers’ positions,” said Zaw Myint Maung.

“Unlike last time the State Counsellor will personally lead a team to select and form the governments of Myanmar’s States and Regions,” Monywa Aung Shin, the party spokesperson, told journalists in Yangon last Monday. After their selection, vetting and appointment transition teams will be established at the State and Regional level and at each ministerial level nationally. These transition teams will be in place early in 2021 so that the new government will be fully prepared when it officially takes office at the beginning of April 2021. 

As it prepares to form the next government, the NLD has been stressing its role is to protect everyone – not just those who voted for it. It has promised to fully implement its 2020 election manifesto.