Naypyidaw / AFP
Myanmar’s lawmakers on Tuesday elected a close aide and longtime friend of Aung San Suu Kyi to become the first civilian president in decades, a historic moment for the formerly junta-run nation.
Htin Kyaw, 69, hailed his elevation to the top post as “Suu Kyi’s victory”, a clear nod to her plan that he serve as a proxy for the Nobel laureate who is constitutionally barred from becoming president.
MPs erupted into applause after the result was announced following a lengthy ballot count by hand in the capital Naypyidaw, in which Htin Kyaw took 360 of 652 votes cast.
Myanmar is undergoing a dramatic transformation from an isolated and repressed pariah state to a rapidly opening aspiring democracy.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a thumping victory at elections in November, allowing her party to dominate Myanmar’s two legislative houses.
But the military remains a powerful force and has refused to change a clause in the junta-era constitution which bars her from the presidency.
The veteran activist has instead vowed to rule “above” the next leader. Her choice of Htin Kyaw is seen as a testament to her absolute faith in his loyalty.
“This is sister Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory,” the newly elected president told reporters after the vote. “Thank you.”
Htin Kyaw will be sworn in on March 30, replacing incumbent Thein Sein. His five years of army-backed quasi-civilian leadership has been praised for moving the nation out of the shadow of outright military rule.
For many MPs from Suu Kyi’s party Tuesday’s vote was a vindication of their long years of struggle for democracy under the repressive former junta, which locked up hundreds of dissidents as it tried to stifle criticism.
The NLD is still haunted by its 1990 election victory which was snatched away by the generals.
Zin Mar Aung, an NLD MP who was involved in 1988 protests and is herself a former political prisoner, termed the vote “very historic”.
She said the election of Htin Kyaw, who was also detained by the former junta, made her think of their long struggle and “the way we have marched to here since more than 20 years ago”.
Tuesday’s election also confirmed the two other candidates as vice presidents—retired general Myint Swe, who is seen as a hardliner ally of the former strongman Than Shwe and is on Washington’s sanctions list, and ethnic Chin MP Henry Van Thio.
Suu Kyi, 70, enjoys unrivalled popularity both as the daughter of the country’s independence hero and as a central figure in the decades-long democracy struggle.
It is not yet clear what role she plans to take or how she will manage her relationship with the new president.
She is barred from top political office because she married and had children with a foreigner.
Months of negotiations with army chief Min Aung Hlaing failed to remove the charter clause that blocks her.
In central Yangon people crowded into teashops to watch the vote live on television.
“He was chosen by Mother Suu. Now he is our president. He will be a good president because he has been working with Mother Suu for many years,” said Daw Mya, 60, a vegetable vendor.
While little known outside Myanmar, Htin Kyaw commands considerable respect inside the country, partly because his father was a legendary writer and early member of the NLD.
Though he has never previously stood for political office, he is married to sitting NLD MP Su Su Lwin, whose late father was the party’s respected spokesman, and he helps run Suu Kyi’s charitable foundation.
A new cabinet, set to be announced at the end of the month, is expected to include figures from across the political spectrum as Suu Kyi tries to promote national reconciliation. It will face many challenges, including poverty, civil wars in ethnic minority borderlands and decrepit infrastructure.
Senior party figures say one of the government’s first tasks will be to whittle down myriad ministries by combining overlapping portfolios.
But one of the most crucial tasks will be to manage the relationship with the military, which retains significant power including control of the vital home, defence and border ministries.