March 23, 2017 6:40 pm JST

Myanmar President Htin Kyaw takes back-seat role

Suu Kyi's longtime aide appears content helping her stabilize the government

MOTOKAZU MATSUI, Nikkei staff writer

Myanmar President, Htin Kyaw

YANGON -- State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is increasingly wielding power in Myanmar, with President Htin Kyaw helping her behind the scenes.

On Feb. 19, a helicopter carrying Htin Kyaw landed at the airport in the mountainous western state of Chin. During his four-day visit, the 70-year-old president participated in a local festival and visited a hospital to explain government efforts to improve infrastructure in remote areas.

Since he was appointed president by the ruling National League for Democracy in March 2016, Htin Kyaw has carried out public duties, such as visiting the countryside and attending cultural events.

Myanmar's constitution, which was enacted by the former junta in 2008, gives the military a large role in politics and stipulates that the head of government should be a president elected by parliament.

Former President Thein Sein had a great deal of influence, speaking to the nation every month and revising bills passed by parliament.

Compared with his powerful predecessor, Htin Kyaw rarely makes public appearances; he has stopped speaking to the nation and revising bills.

A diplomatic source said Htin Kyaw plays more ceremonial roles, such as meeting with foreign envoys.

Last April, Suu Kyi assumed the post of state counselor to oversee state affairs. She launched and spearheaded the National Reconciliation and Peace Center, which is tasked with conducting cease-fire negotiations with ethnic minorities. She was also behind the Development Assistance Coordination Unit, which allocates international aid.

Loyal aide

To prevent Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British citizens, from becoming president, the military government included a provision in the constitution to bar candidates with foreign spouses or children. After the NLD won the 2015 general election, Suu Kyi sought to amend this section of the constitution.

To fend off strong opposition from the military, Htin Kyaw became president and declared in his inauguration speech that his government was set up by Suu Kyi's NLD. His remarks complied with her wishes.

Htin Kyaw attended the same high school as Suu Kyi. He worked in the Ministry of Finance, but left government service as the military strengthened its grip on power. He became a supporter of the NLD (his father was a member), and, as a family friend, supported Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest.

Despite having little experience in politics, Htin Kyaw was hand-picked by Suu Kyi, a year his senior, to run the government.

An ambitious president could be expected to compete for power. But Htin Kyaw is selfless, an administration official said, and has maintained the power structure with Suu Kyi at the top.

Although the NLD is expected to face an uphill battle in conflict-torn regions dominated by ethnic minorities in by-elections next month, the party is likely to maintain the upper hand in the 2020 general election, on the back of Suu Kyi's popularity.

Suu Kyi, who will be 75 by then, is likely to appoint her successor to become president. To continue to garner public support, however, she will need a growing economy and other signs of progress.

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