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The lady and her president

Verena Hölzl, Myanmar / jtm
March 15, 2016

After decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar's parliament has elected a new president. While it may not be Aung San Suu Kyi, the election of her close aide Htin Kyaw has given the Burmese a reason for hope.

Myanmar Htin Kyaw Staatspräsident mit Aung San Suu Kyi Parteivorsitzende
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Shine Oo

This is how Myanmar's democracy has played out for Ma Thanda: for a year and a half, her husband, an activist, was shot under mysterious circumstances while imprisoned by the military. And not long ago, the police locked away her friend Nilar Thein, who had taken to the streets to demand a better education system. "The military still has us firmly under their control," she said.

The 47-year-old and one-time political prisoner has sat since February in Myanmar's first democratically elected parliament after nearly a half-century of military dictatorship. From this position, she hopes to be able to reshape her country, though it is clear to her that this won't be easy. The military's influence remains large. It retains control over the ministries of defense, the interior and border protection. And the constitution grants it control over 25 percent of the seats in parliament - enough to block constitutional amendments.

First civilian president in 50 years

Today was a historical moment for Ma Thanda and her fellow representatives. She was finally able to vote a candidate of the National League for Democracy (NLD), 69-year-old Htin Kyaw, into office.

Back in November's parliamentary elections, the Burmese had voted overwhelmingly for the NLD, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. She was barred, however, from the presidency as a result of a prohibition written into the country's constitution - drafted by the military and adopted in 2008 - that prevents anyone related to foreign citizens to assume the presidency. Aung San Suu Kyi's sons have British citizenship. "The lady," as she is often called in Myanmar, had to send another candidate into the running.

A quarter of all seats are reserved for the military
A quarter of all seats in parliament are reserved for the militaryImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Gacad

Because the military continues to hold a quarter of seats in parliament, Suu Kyi's path to the presidency will likely remain blocked, particularly as negotiations between Aung San Suu Kyi and the army chief have so far been unsuccessful.

Proxy President

This is why, before the elections, the NLD leader made it clear that she would be above the president, who would, in turn, follow her directives. "It is the victory of my sister Aung San Suu Kyi," Htin Kyaw said after the election.

Before becoming president, the newly elected head of state was not well known to the public. Nonetheless, commentators welcomed his election unanimously. For instance, influential and nationally renowned historian Thant Myint-U referred to it as a "stellar choice."

Former President Thein Sein meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi
Former President Thein Sein meeting with Aung San Suu KyiImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Myanmar Ministry of Information

Parliamentarian Ma Thanda said, "I trust Aung San Suu Kyi and all of her decisions." This view is shared by most Burmese. Suu Kyi's influence on her supporters is big enough to garner popular backing for the new president representing her.

Overwhelming joy

Many Burmese followed Tuesday's historic election live on TV, and took to social media to show their pride and joy. But there were some who were disappointed as Myint Swe, a hardliner for the military, will become Vice President, Myanmar's second-highest official.

He's believed to be a confidant of former dictator Than Shwe, and has been accused of being responsible for the security forces crackdown on protesters during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when monks rose against the regime. His name is on a US sanctions list.

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