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Karen State's new chief signals continuity and change

Voter education in the lead-up to the Nov. 8 election (Photo by Justine Chambers)

HPA-AN, Karen state, Myanmar -- Alongside Myanmar's first democratically elected government in more than 50 years, 14 new state and region chief ministers have recently taken the reins from their predecessors. Among the most notable is Khin Htwe Myint, chief minister of Karen State, one of just two women to be appointed by the new civilian-led government to positions previously reserved for military hard men.

Khin Htwe Myint seated in the Karen State Hluttaw (Photo by Thant Zin Aung, NLD Hpa-an)

After Myanmar's independence in 1948, Karen State, one of the most troubled of the country's 14 states and regions, collapsed into 60 years of brutal civil conflict which devastated its social services, infrastructure and economy. Life for the 1.5 million or so people of the state has improved since the signing of a preliminary ceasefire agreement between the government and the fighters of the Karen National Union in 2012, but many areas remain isolated and impoverished.

Alongside the need for significant socio-economic reforms, the new chief minister is charged with helping to negotiate and implement a political settlement with armed groups that have been engaged in one of the longest running civil conflicts in the world. But little is known about this formidable woman, including what has inspired her and how she plans to lead change in this complex region.

Prior to the 2015 election, rumors of Khin Htwe Myint's prospective appointment as chief minister circulated widely, but she was reluctant to admit it. With a knowing sparkle in her eye, she would say, "Only Daw Suu knows," using an honorific term for Aung San Suu Kyi, the matriarch of the governing National League for Democracy .

According to Myanmar's 2008 constitution, the chief minister of each state and region is nominated by the president and then confirmed by regional parliamentarians. Under the NLD government, Khin Htwe Myint was nominated directly by the new President, Htin Kyaw, but the decision was largely made by Suu Kyi, now state counselor and de-facto leader of Myanmar. Khin Htwe Myint was confirmed in a unanimous vote by the 23 members of the Karen State Hluttaw [parliament] on March 28. No woman has previously served as a chief minister in Myanmar.

Dr Saw Hla Tun, the first chief minister of Karen State (Photo by Justine Chambers and original photo by Khin Htwe Myint)

Well-known for her unwavering and deep loyalty to Suu Kyi, Khin Htwe Myint chairs the Karen state branch of the NLD and is one of only a handful of ethnic minority members of the NLD'S central executive committee. Her father, Saw Hla Tun, was the first chief minister of Karen State after independence, and politics has always featured prominently in her life.

She was also elected for the NLD at the 1990 poll -- a national victory for Suu Kyi's party that the then military government refused to recognize. "We always thought she would one day be chief minister," her sister-in-law Mi Ngeh said. "She has been preparing for this for many years."

Born on May 10, 1954, soon after her father took the role of chief minister, Khin Htwe Myint remembers him telling stories about juggling parliament, the powerful Karen armed insurrection and the military after a 1962 coup. In addition to her own election, the 2015 poll also saw her two brothers, Saw Tin Win and Myo Aung, elected as members of parliament. "Like our father, we always wanted to be leaders of change in our state and country," she said. "It is in our blood."

Khin Htwe Myint in her youth (Courtesy of Khin Htwe Myint)

While politics runs in the family, the youthful Khin Htwe Myint was also inspired by Myanmar's tradition of student activism. "University students have always played a key role in bringing change to our country," she said. "As a student myself at the Rangoon Institute of Economics in the 1970s it didn't take long before I joined the student activist movement."

In 1974 she was arrested and imprisoned in Insein prison in Rangoon alongside hundreds of other university student activists who had attempted, against the government's wishes, to inter the body of U Thant, the third Secretary General of the United Nations, in the historic student union building.

Khin Htwe Myint's sentence of six years in prison foreshadowed a lifetime skirting arrest as she dedicated her life to underground pro-democracy activities. She is softly spoken and personable, but clearly firm and resolute in her views. "I've had a lot of time to myself to think," she said.

She was arrested and imprisoned again in Hpa-an after widespread student protests in 1988, and again nine years later in Mawlamyine for obstructing a public servant in the "discharge of his duty," as the charge put it. "Insein is notorious for its harsh conditions, but it was like a hotel compared to Hpa-an and Mawlamyine," she said.

"In Hpa-an's prison we couldn't read, we were always hungry and we could barely sleep because there were always so many of us crammed in one cell." Despite the hardship, she said, her long stints in jail have taught her to be humble, and grateful for little things. "You know a lot is changing now in Myanmar, and it's easy to get caught up in everything new. But we must not forget where we have come from and what we have fought for."

Opening of an NLD office in Hpa-an district, Karen State (Photo by Justine Chambers)

Elusive peace

Over several interviews, Khin Htwe Myint spoke of a fierce determination to find peace in Karen State, under the banner of a united, democratic and federalized Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Unlike other Karen leaders who are better known for seeking independence, she said she had always seen herself "as both Karen and Burmese." She stridently defends this vision of national unity, arguing, "If we are going to see any change in this country, we must work together as one people, rather than see ourselves as separate communities."

This view puts her at odds with some Karen leaders in her home state, who contend that "she is more loyal to the NLD than her own," as one civil society representative put it. It is a sentiment shared by some Karen armed groups, the majority of which signed the ceasefire agreement in October 2015 but whose allegiance to the new government cannot be taken for granted.

In Karen State, the issue of peace, ceasefires and the management of ethnic armed groups will be a key test for the new state chief minister. Following the lead of Suu Kyi, Khin Htwe Myint is confident she will be able to cement a sustainable and lasting peace.

Some of the ethnic armed group leaders are not convinced, however, and there are also fears on the government side that the inexperience of the new government could derail sensitive political negotiations. An officer in the Karen Border Guard Force, who asked not to be named, said of Khin Htwe Myint: "She has no military background or real understanding of the complexity of the ceasefire process. How can she take on the position of chief minister?"

Part of this skepticism derives from a gendered understanding of the peace process as "men's business," which is symptomatic of the entrenched patriarchal values that remain widespread in Myanmar. Women have been consistently excluded from the peace negotiations; bringing Khin Htwe Myint into a position of leadership challenges these dynamics and hierarchies.

However, she is blunt about her commitment to including women's voices, both in the peace process and in politics more broadly. "It's mothers that manage the household in Myanmar, and now we have a mother running our country too," she said, in a reference to Suu Kyi. "I hope that young women in Karen State will also be inspired by my appointment to become more involved in politics from a young age and for men to take them more seriously as decision makers."

As one of two female chief ministers appointed by the new government (the other is in Tenasserim Division) her appointment is a notable advance for gender equality. However, it does little to shift perceptions of women more broadly in the public psyche. Suu Kyi is the only woman in the national ministerial cabinet.

Khin Htwe Myint cautiously avoids commenting on Suu Kyi's style of leadership, saying only: "We can trust her to make decisions that are good for the people." However, public trust and confidence will be difficult for Khin Htwe Myint to sustain if she simply follows orders from "the Lady," as Suu Kyi is known.

Achieving real change in Karen State could also be more difficult than she hopes. Chief ministers are the heads of Myanmar's patchwork of state and regional governments, and are ultimately in charge of implementing national policies on the ground. Constitutionally, however, they have very little formal power.

Over the next five years, Khin Htwe Myint will need to grapple with daunting economic, political and security-related problems. Sustained efforts to put a halt to land grabs, corruption and tax evasion, and to improve local governance will be essential if the Karen people are to benefit from the changes brought about by the nascent democratic transition. But here, as across Myanmar, it remains to be seen how much scope the new chief minister and state parliament have for independent decision-making under the centralized management of the NLD.

"Right now people's expectations of us are in the heavens," Khin Htwe Myint admitted. Even though life has improved for some in Karen State, the biggest concern for many remains finding enough income to cover household expenses, including healthcare and education, which require substantial out-of-pocket contributions. With a low population density and a fragmented internal road network, improving access to good quality services and livelihoods will be a monumental task requiring more than centralized government leadership.

Despite these constraints and expectations, Khin Htwe Myint is optimistic and hopeful for the future. "In November we achieved what many thought was impossible," she said, referring to the 2015 election. "Now I believe anything is possible. We have much cheaper labor than Thailand, so we can create many manufacturing and industrial jobs. Karen State also has many natural assets, so I am sure that we will see growth in tourism, investment and trade."

The road ahead remains uncertain. "Change takes time," she admitted. "But step by step we will improve Karen state and Myanmar for the people." It is a formidable challenge, but one for which Khin Htwe Myint has been preparing for decades.

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