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Suu Kyi loyalist confirmed for Burma presidential race

Published 11/03/2016

Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from becoming Burma's president
Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from becoming Burma's president

A long-time confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi has been confirmed in a parliamentary vote as one of the three final candidates to be Burma's next president, albeit as a proxy for the Nobel laureate.

Htin Kyaw, of the National League for Democracy party, was approved by a 274-29 vote in the lower house of parliament to be a finalist for the presidential election next week.

A second NLD candidate, Henry Van Tio, was chosen as the second finalist by the upper house with a 148-13 vote. A third candidate will be put forward by the military bloc, which has a constitutionally mandated 25% of reserved seats in parliament.

Legislators from both houses of parliament will hold another round of voting - for which no date has been set - to choose one of them as president, which almost certainly will be the 70-year-old Htin Kyaw . The other two will become vice presidents.

"We are satisfied that Htin Kyaw has won to become one of the presidential candidates. We believe that we soon will be able create a better future for our country. We chose him because he is skilful and a very suitable person to be the president," said Myo Zaw Aung, an NLD legislator.

Friday's vote became necessary because, in an unexpected move, the outgoing ruling party put forward its own two candidates on Thursday, even though their candidacy was doomed from the start.

The NLD has an overwhelming majority in both chambers following its landslide victory in the November 8 general elections, which paved the way for the country's first democratically elected government since the military took power in 1962.

The new president will take office on April 1. But for all practical purposes Htin Kyaw will be a proxy for Ms Suu Kyi, who has said she will be "above" the president and rule from behind the scenes.

This arrangement came into being because Ms Suu Kyi is barred from being president by the constitution, which says that anyone with a foreign spouse or children cannot hold the executive office. Ms Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband. The clause is widely seen as having been written by the military - Ms Suu Kyi's long-time bitter adversary - with her in mind.

Ms Suu Kyi fought for decades to end dictatorship in Burma, and remains her party's unquestioned leader. She was awarded the 1991 Nobel prize while under house arrest, where she spent 15 years locked away by a junta that feared her political popularity.

For the past few weeks she is believed to have held closed-door talks with the military generals to suspend the constitutional clause that bars her from the presidency, apparently without success.

Ms Suu Kyi did not attend Thursday's high-profile nomination session but posted a letter on Facebook to her legions of supporters. She called it a "first step toward realising the expectations and desires of the people who overwhelmingly supported the National League for Democracy in the elections".

"It is our will to fulfil the people's desire," she said in the letter. "We will try as hard as we can to do that."

Kyaw Thiha, an upper house NLD politician, said on Thursday that the new president will take orders from Ms Suu Kyi.

"She cannot become the president, but it doesn't really matter because she will be controlling everything. She will be the one to control us," Kyaw Thiha said. "It doesn't really matter that she is not becoming the president."

Htin Kyaw is a computer science graduate from the University of London, and is a contemporary of Ms Suu Kyi, who also is 70. He enjoys her full confidence, and was usually seen by her side during her long struggle to bring democracy in Burma.

His father was a national poet and a National League for Democracy politician from an aborted 1990 election, while his wife is a prominent legislator for the party in the current house. His father-in-law, a former army colonel, was a co-founder of the NLD.

A Burma expert expressed misgivings about having a proxy president and the repercussions it will have.

Ms Suu Kyi and and her supporters "are quite rightly indignant about the nakedly political nature of the prohibition against her", said John Ciorciari, an assistant professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michgan.

"Yet by insisting that she will pull the strings and continue pursuing the office, she virtually ensures that Htin Kyaw will be perceived as a pass-through president. This makes him an easier target for military leaders keen to reassert control," he said in comments emailed to the Associated Press.

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