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Myanmar’s new president might not be Aung San Suu Kyi, but he does represent progress

Htin Kyaw, the newly elected president of Myanmar, with Aung San Suu Kyi. Photograph: Aung Shine Oo/AP

By Maung Zarni
March 16, 2016

For the first time in decades, the Burmese people have a civilian president. Now they must weather the clash of military and opposition proxies to come 

Myanmar parliament’s official confirmation on Tuesday that Aung San Suu Kyi’s aide – Htin Kyaw– is to be the presidential proxy ended months of hopeful speculation. Numerous articles and newspaper editorials had, excitedly, touched on the fairytale of a Burmese Mandela moment: the country’s most popular politician, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, assuming the highest office after years of relentless persecution, heroic perseverance and noble reconciliation.

For those of us Burmese who know the military’s institutionalised disdain towards the woman who most of the country call Ahmay, or Mother, we knew that western media was wasting ink on a foregone conclusion. The military will never let Aung San Suu Kyi be the head of state, nor hold the reins of state power. They did not accept her when she first emerged in 1988 and they still don’t accept her leadership, 28 years later, on the verge of her 71st birthday. 

The generals used to give their approval to derogatory references to her that appeared in the numerous Burmese-language publications run by the military intelligence services. Because she was married to a Briton, she used to be called Kala maya (or wife of a white nigger), or, worse still, Kala ma (female nigger). Against the backdrop of the Arab spring and Barack Obama’s offer to decriminalise “rogue regimes” should they cooperate with the Americans, the generals decided to change their tack in dealing with their nemesis, the darling of the west. 

Shrewdly, they dropped crude and crass references to Suu Kyi and instead began playing nice and smiling broadly. In exchange, they got her to open doors for them in the private sector, to rekindle military ties at Sandhurst and West Point, and secure the acceptability and legitimacy of indirect military rule under its new management of media-friendly generals. But deep down, non-cooperation with Suu Kyi and her party remains the military’s default position, something the media and Myanmar experts have overlooked. 

10 years ago, a young colonel from military intelligence picked me up from Rangoon airport and asked me point-blank: “Do you think only Aung San Suu Kyi can bring democracy to our country?”, to which I answered bluntly, “No, absolutely not. Democracy is about the people, not the leaders, much less a specific leader.” Some ranking generals couldn’t even bring themselves to say her name, and often resorted to calling her “that woman”. That colonel now is among the top three generals in the country, and backed his former boss, ex-Lt-General Myint Swe, a hardliner, to be the military’s man as vice president.

In her tireless efforts to secure cooperation from the military, Suu Kyi has repeatedly expressed her appreciation, respect and “genuine” affection for the Tatmadaw (feudal military), which her father founded under Japan’s fascist patronage in December 1942, much to the dismay of many minorities who have borne the brunt of the organisation’s ruthless policies. There has been no shortage of accusations of widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity against Christian and other minorities in eastern Myanmar and a slow but systematic genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar.

All her displays of love were, predictably, to no avail. A stormy road lies ahead. As her relationship with the generals has reportedly turned sour again, a game of tit-for-tat now awaits the country. For their part, the generals who retain the ultimate say in the country’s affairs are digging in their heels, having put Myint Swe, a former head of military intelligence, as an uncompromising counterbalance to Suu Kyi’s puppet president.

Still, Htin Kyaw’s assumption of the presidency is a symbolically important moment for the Burmese public, who have repeatedly expressed their desire to rid the country of their military overlords. For the first time in 53 years, 51 million Burmese people have got a genuine civilian president who is not a general or ex-general in civilian clothing, and who can be expected not to promote the military’s interests.

Beyond this symbolic progress, the presidential politics of proxies in the high offices of Myanmar – the military with their ex-intelligence chief and Suu Kyi with her absolutely loyal former classmate – doesn’t augur well for the future of the country. But again, genuine democracy will require a renewed, hard and sustained push by all sections of the country.

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