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Myanmar president's resignation draws mixed reactions

But leader's exit still leaves questions over role of Aung San Suu Kyi and military

YANGON -- Myanmar was plunged into uncertainty on Wednesday with the announcement that the country's president, Htin Kyaw, had resigned after two years in office. A brief notice posted on the president's official Facebook page said simply that he had resigned effective March 21 because he needed to "rest from current duties and responsibilities."

The notice said a new president would assume the post within seven working days.

The abrupt announcement of the resignation of a key ally of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi took even government insiders by surprise, though it was widely known that Htin Kyaw, 71, has been suffering serious health problems. He has visited neighboring countries, including Singapore and Thailand, for medical treatment over the past year.

As Myanmar continues to struggle with the continuing Rohingya refugee crisis, senior Western and local business executives and diplomats emphasized the need for a swift replacement for Htin Kyaw to ensure continuity. Many said it was too early to judge the overall impact of his resignation -- although key business executives voiced concern that the news would fuel investor uncertainty over the country's stability.

"The main thing is to deal with this shift quickly and have a new president in place ASAP," a construction industry executive told the Nikkei Asian Review. Other critics suggested the resignation would fuel the appearance of a growing crisis within the government of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But some took a more positive view.

"On the surface, this sudden development might look like a negative for the government, but, in fact, it could be the opposite," the executive said. "Periodic rumors about the president's health or possible resignation were unsettling. Business would welcome a change if, as seems likely, the new president would be respected by all."

Among the most likely successors as president is Win Myint, a widely respected member of Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy and a former political prisoner who has been speaker of Myanmar's lower house of parliament since 2016. News that he had resigned his position on Tuesday reinforced the likelihood that he would be the NLD's choice as replacement president.

Htin Kyaw, who resigned as Myanmar's president on Wednesday, speaks during the opening session of the Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in July 2016.   © Reuters

According to Myanmar's constitution, Vice President Myint Swe -- the more senior of the country's two vice presidents -- automatically becomes acting president until the national parliament, which is currently in session, votes on a new president within seven working days. The process involves appointing a new vice president and holding a parliamentary vote to select the new president from among those three vice presidents.

Under Htin Kyaw, a former academic and writer, the office of president was seen as largely ceremonial. As the country's de facto leader, Suu Kyi made clear when her party took power in early 2016 that she would lead the government and that the president would be beneath her.

Suu Kyi, 72, heads the ruling NLD but was barred from the office of president by constitutional restrictions. The charter, drafted by the military regime in 2008, prohibits Myanmar nationals with foreign children or spouses from the presidency. Suu Kyi had two sons by her late husband, a British academic.

According to the constitution, the NLD, which holds the overwhelming majority of the 664-seat parliament, will be able to control who becomes president, as it would dominate any parliamentary vote. However, under the constitution, which allocates 25% of all parliamentary seats to the powerful military, the new president would have to be acceptable to the top generals.

Suu Kyi, who has lobbied the military vigorously to support a change in constitutional restrictions on her eligibility for the presidency, is positioning her party for 2020 national elections. At the same time, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar's military, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, whose term expires in 2020, has increasingly portrayed himself as a future leader.

Some critics noted the abrupt timing of Htin Kyaw's announcement -- as Suu Kyi journeys back from attending the ASEAN-Australia summit in Sydney, and contends with the mounting international backlash over the brutal military campaign against Rohingya minority Muslims in the country's western Rakhine State.

But a senior NLD official noted the close friendship between Suu Kyi and Htin Kyaw and his wife, a former lawmaker. "The announcement was clearly discussed between them in advance, there is no crisis or surprise about this," he said.

The military's hostility and consistent rejection of international requests for cooperation and accountability over the Rohingya crisis has put Suu Kyi in an awkward position in her dealings with the international community -- while the military has gained domestic support for its brutal campaign against what it has portrayed as extremist threats from Rohingya militants.

In Myanmar, a country with an overwhelmingly Buddhist population, the stateless Rohingya are widely vilified as interlopers from Bangladesh. Since late 2016, more than 750,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh amid the military crackdown.

Suu Kyi is also dealing with setbacks to her signature peace initiative with ethnic armed groups, amid the recent escalation of conflict between government forces and ethnic insurgents in the country's north and east. Recent military attacks on ethnic armed groups have added to speculation about growing tensions between the civilian and military branches of government.

However, insiders close to Suu Kyi's office played down any suggestions of crisis, pointing to new efforts by the government to finalize an ambitious new economic reform program, and recent agreements signed with China and other countries on trade, aid and investment.

While Htin Kyaw had valid health concerns, it was also widely known that he had been unhappy in his role, which some critics labeled as that of a "puppet president."

A soft-spoken man and a close friend of Suu Kyi, he had undertaken extensive travel abroad to represent the government, most recently visiting Japan and other Asian countries. His resignation has been rumored for almost a year but has been consistently denied by government and NLD officials.

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