Victorious at the polls but unallowed to become president, Aung San Suu Kyi aims to run Myanmar through a proxy leader. Will it work?
Here's a fact you probably don't know about Myanmar: about a dozen of parliamentarians elected last year during the country's first free elections in 25 years are also poets. That they like to play with words is indeed no question: the man they elected president today will be president only by name. He will instead serve as proxy for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who's been Myanmar's main opposition figure for more than three decades.
Under a constitution crafted by the military junta that's been ruling Myanmar until now, Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president (because her kids are British). Yet the same laws say the president must be elected by MPs from a list of nominees; because Suu Kyi's party won an overwhelming majority in both assembly houses last November, its favourite was sure to win. Whatever the law says, however, Suu Kyi's still very much wearing the pants - so the chosen candidate knew his job would be limited to that of figurehead.
Last Thursday Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) said Htin Kyaw would be that man. Not much is known about him, apart from the fact that he fits the role pretty neatly: a director at the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a charity named after Suu Kyi’s mother, he went to the same secondary school as Suu Kyi. He is said by people close to him to be of "impeachable integrity", a respected man coming from a family "at the heart" of Myanmar's liberal tradition. And to top it up, he's also a poet.
There are signs the army doesn't like him as much (yesterday they abstained from confirming him as a candidate under the pretext that he isn't an MP - even if the constitution doesn't state presidential candidates need to be lawmakers in the first place).
Still, in the end they were fine with it. Under the constitution they passed last year, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, their political arm, is reserved 25 percent of all seats in the parliament. More importantly, it also has veto over constitution changes as well as control of the defence and external border ministries. The army is scared of Suu Kyi, a longtime opponent of the junta, a popular idol and a strong-minded character. They probably see a puppet president - even reporting to Suu Kyi - as less likely to create trouble.
Perhaps they also hope that the proxy arrangement will be untenable. They could be right: when the new government takes power on April 1st, it will have a bewildering number of choices to make, ranging from the economy to conflicts on the nation's borders. Having divided centres of power could cripple the freshly minted administration from the outset. Suu Kyi, known for her tendency to micro-manage, is unlikely to delegate decisions; yet having to refer to her on each and every of them could soon create a massive policy backlog.
This situation has a precedent: the prime ministership of Manmohan Singh, proxy Indian leader for Sonia Gandhi until 2014. If history is any guide, that's not encouraging. Singh's government was widely seen as impotent, presiding over a period of economic torpor and ripening corruption. The proxy arrangement blamed for heightening the paralysis through dysfunctional governance. People didn't know who to address, often going to Singh or Gandhi depending on who they thought would be most favourable to their cause.
There are other difficulties more specific to Myanmar. Suu Kyi, for instance, probably won't have a seat on the National Defence and Security Council, an opaque organ technically headed by the president but dominated by the military. It's not clear what its exact responsibilities are - neither how often it meets - but the constitution says it has the power to sever diplomatic ties, instigate military action, name the commander-in-chief and “exercise sovereign power”. What she will do stay in the loop on these loosely defined matters remains to be seen.
It's not so clear either what the proxy arrangement means in legal terms. Suu Kyi has said she deems herself "above the president" - but the law still states the predident "takes precedence over all persons". If Htin Kyaw is too obviously a puppet, the army could perhaps take it as an excuse to intervene. There is also a precedent for this, if only extreme: Thailand's Yingluck Shinawatra, who served as a proxy for her exiled brother starting 2011 but lost power through a coup in all but name three years later.
All this doesn't mean Suu Kyi can't succeed. The proxy arrangement is not meant to be permanent - the hope is that in a year's time, she'll be in a stronger position to negotiate a constitution change with the army. In the meantime, though, she will have to thread carefully. She still has powerful enemies within the country - and they aren't exactly poets.