The resignation of Myanmar’s president yesterday has thrown the spotlight onto the Southeast Asian country’s delicate and complicated power-sharing politics.
President Htin Kyaw – who became Myanmar’s first democratically elected civilian leader in 2016 after a half-century of military rule – stepped down to “take a rest” amid widespread reports of the 71-year-old’s declining health over the last year.
His resignation was promptly followed by that of Speaker of Myanmar’s lower house of parliament Win Myint, widely speculated to be the next to occupy the president’s chair.
But these sudden departures will do little to alter Myanmar’s real power struggle between the country’s recently empowered civilian leaders and its long-established military.
These two poles are represented by commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, and Aung San Suu Kyi, who has ruled above the president as state counsellor since the last elections.
Between these two poles, the president has little power.
Htin Kyaw has in any case received lacklustre reviews on nearly two years in power as the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) failed to make substantial progress on issues such as improving infrastructure, land rights, and ending the country’s myriad ethnic conflicts.
Rumours over Htin Kyaw’s deteriorating health had been mounting almost since he assumed the position and it was reported that he underwent stomach surgery in Singapore in December 2016 and has since been receiving treatment in Bangkok.
Although some have described Htin Kyaw’s possible successor, Win Myint, as proud and pro-active in parliament, he is also an old NLD member and similarly close to “The Lady.”
Even Suu Kyi’s power is curtailed, by the country’s 2008 military-drafted constitution: the generals retain 25% of regional and national parliament seats, and control of three key ministries.
But some wonder whether there needs to be some kind of change at the top in Myanmar, given the mounting scorn that both military leaders and Suu Kyi – once feted as an icon of democracy and human rights for her opposition to decades of military rule – have faced over the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh since the military launched brutal military operations.
One possibility, following the president’s resignation, is a power grab by Myanmar’s military.
According to the constitution, the first vice president – currently former top general Myint Swe – will serve as acting president.
But an attempt by the generals to take power is unlikely as both the military and the NLD rely on the status quo.
It is in Min Aung Hlaing’s interest to stay aloof and overcome the present international criticism on the Rohingya crisis.
And Myint Swe is not expected to hold the position for long.
Within seven working days, the NLD-packed lower house will elect the new president.
The NLD must explore another possible way forward: for the new president to create a position of greater responsibility, outside of Suu Kyi’s control.
With Suu Kyi facing raging criticism over the Rohingya issue, and the military retaining a “festering resentment” for her state counsellor position, the current situation is less than stable for Myanmar.
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