Saturday 10 December 2016

Ally of Aung San Suu Kyi sworn in as new President of Burma

Published 30/03/2016 | 15:38

Aung San Suu Kyi, left, walks out of parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)
Aung San Suu Kyi, left, walks out of parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

Burma's slow transition to democracy has taken a momentous step as Htin Kyaw, a trusted ally of ruling party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, took over as the country's president, officially ending more than 50 years of military-controlled government.

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In a day full of ceremony and symbolism, Mr Kyaw was sworn in along with his two vice presidents and 18 cabinet ministers.

Ms Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and the face of Burma's pro-democracy movement, takes on a prominent role as the country's new foreign minister and the head of three other departments - education, energy and the presidential office.

"The Union Parliament has elected me as president, which is a historic moment for this country," Mr Kyaw, 70, said after being sworn in.

He pledged to work towards national reconciliation, strive for peace with warring ethnic rebels and improving the lives of Burma's 54 million people.

While it is a historic day for the impoverished south-east Asian country, the journey to democracy remains incomplete.

The military retains considerable power in the government and parliament, and the president himself will play second fiddle to Ms Suu Kyi.

She cannot be president because of constitutional manipulation engineered by the military, and has repeatedly said she will run the country from behind the scenes.

Having four ministries is unusual, but the lack of criticism over this for Ms Suu Kyi is another sign of her widespread public support.

US president Barack Obama noted the continuing challenges for the country, in a statement in which he called Htin Kyaw's election "a historic milestone in the country's transition to a democratically elected, civilian-led government".

Mr Obama added: "Burma will face significant challenges going forward, including achieving broad-based economic development, advancing national reconciliation, and promoting the rights and freedoms of all its people.

"The United States looks forward to being a friend and partner of the new government and the people of Burma as they make progress toward building a more inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous future."

Mr Kyaw's swearing-in was held in an austere hall of parliament, with politicians dressed in traditional costume. A few hours later, outgoing president Thein Sein shook hands with his successor and handed him a letter and a golden sash, officially transferring power.

It was Ms Suu Kyi who led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide win in November's elections, ushering in Burma's first civilian government after 54 years of direct and indirect military rule.

Ms Suu Kyi endured decades of house arrest and harassment by military rulers without ever giving up on her non-violent campaign to unseat them. The constitutional clause that denied her the presidency excludes anyone from the position who has a foreign spouse or child. 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 with Ms Suu Kyi in mind.

She has repeatedly made it clear that she will run the government from behind the scenes, and in his speech on Wednesday, Mr Kyaw paid tribute to Ms Suu Kyi.

"The new parliament and new government are formed in accord with the policies of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi," he said, and referred to the party's goal to amend the constitution.

"I have the obligation to work toward achieving a constitution that has democratic norms and is suitable for the nation.

"I want to tell the new government, we must constantly try to fulfil the hope and will of the people of this country. I wish all citizens of this country a successful and peaceful life."

The constitution, drafted under the former junta, reserves 25% of the seats in parliament for military officers, guaranteeing that no government can amend the constitution without the army's approval.

The military also heads the home ministry, the border affairs ministry and the defence ministry, which gives it control over the corrections department, ensuring that the release of political prisoners is its decision to make.

The military also ensured that one of Mr Kyaw's two vice presidents is a former general, Myint Swe, a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe.

Myint Swe remains on a US treasury department blacklist that bars American companies from doing business with several tycoons and senior military figures connected with the former junta.

Press Association

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