Myanmar's President Win Myint (L) and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (R) arrive to attend a reception to mark the 72nd anniversary of country's National Union Day in Naypyidaw on February 12, 2019. (Thet AUNG / AFP)

A “New Generation” Leader for Myanmar’s National League for Democracy?

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Even though Myanmar's President is both the head of state and head of government, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is still the de facto leader of Myanmar, with all important policy decisions needing her approval. This heavy burden, along with Ms Suu Kyi's advancing age, may necessitate a shift to a new generation of more pro-active leadership.

Following the surprise resignation of President Htin Kyaw on 21 March 2018, Myanmar’s Parliament elected lower-house speaker Mr Win Myint as President, and swore him in on 30 March. Under Myanmar’s current political set-up, it is relevant to ponder what the role of the new president is.

According to the 2008 constitution, the President is both head of state and head of government. With the passing of the State Counsellor bill (set into motion by President Htin Kyaw) since April 2016, however, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has become the de facto leader of Myanmar, with President Htin Kyaw playing a largely ceremonial role.

With Ms Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, Foreign Minister, and Minister in the President’s Office, chairperson of eleven cabinet committees, all important policy decisions need her approval. But the last two years show that a highly centralized leadership style is not working. Ms Suu Kyi is overburdened, and her attention is distracted from matters related to the economy, the peace process and the crisis in Rakhine State. Commentators have observed the need to delegate day-to-day government matters to the President.

With the 2020 election looming, the NLD will have to convince the people that they (the NLD) have qualified young generation leaders for the post-Aung San Suu Kyi era, and are able to deliver much-expected socio-economic benefits to the public.

Ms Suu Kyi is now 72 and there is no clear successor to her in the National League for Democracy (NLD). The government had to deny rumors about her health in January 2018, and during her visit to Australia to attend the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in March she had to cancel a planned speech citing ill health. According to the NLD spokesperson, during a meeting with party leaders on 24 March, she said to her colleagues that she wanted to retire soon and hand over to younger generation. This can be construed as an indication that succession planning may be afoot, and could also be one of the reasons why Mr Win Myint, 67, was selected to stand for presidential nomination once Mr Htin Kyaw stepped down. On 26 March 2018, four days before the date set for Parliament to cast votes for the presidency, the NLD Central Executive Committee (CEC) held a meeting to appoint Mr Win Myint as vice-chairman(1) of the NLD CEC. This was followed by a special mention in Ms Suu Kyi’s State of the Union speech on 1 April, where she referred to Mr Win Myint as a second-generation NLD leader, and also praised him as a devoted NLD member able to perform the duties of State with good moral character, steadfastness and wisdom.

Unlike Mr Htin Kyaw, who owes his Presidency to his personal friendship and loyalty to Ms Suu Kyi , Mr Win Myint has vast political experience as NLD veteran. He joined the NLD after 1988 and won a seat in both the 1990 and 2015 elections, as well as in the 2012 by-elections. He is a CEC member (now vice-chairman), as well as secretary in the parliamentary committee on rule of law which Ms Suu Kyi chaired from 2012 to 2016. A member of parliament since 2012, he served as lower house speaker starting 2016. This experience gives him a strong basis to deal with other NLD cabinet members and Chief Ministers of Regions and States.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) is also developing the next generation of leaders. Current Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is a decade younger than Ms Suu Kyi and will be a strong candidate for the Presidency in 2020 election. There are several younger generals who can succeed him after another decade.

With the 2020 election looming, the NLD will have to convince the people that they (the NLD) have qualified young generation leaders for the post-Aung San Suu Kyi era, and are able to deliver much-expected socio-economic benefits to the public. Whether the newly elected President Win Myint can achieve this depends on how much space State Counsellor Ms Suu Kyi will give him in government affairs.