The resignation of President U Htin Kyaw came as no surprise but ended months of speculation in Myanmar. U Htin Kyaw has been receiving medical treatment in Bangkok and Singapore since late last year and his condition has not improved.
His resignation was announced as State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returned from Australia. But news that his belongings had been moved from the presidential residence had previously circulated among officials and political observers.
Since early this year, de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and some senior National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders advised U Htin Kyaw to avoid regular state functions.
But in public, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi glossed over her trusted friend’s failing health.
“There is no need to worry. We have the first lady who will take care [of the president]. Why do we need to worry when there is someone to take care of him?” she asked.
The son of a respected national poet, U Htin Kyaw is loyal to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and previously served as an adviser to her and the party. According to the Constitution, he has executive power. But he was seen as simply a puppet president.
The ailing president or now former president, is a former schoolmate of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and a respected writer, holds an economics degree and studied computer science at the University of London. Even though it was sudden departure, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD party leaders must have thought it was possible long before. There were even reports that she and her aides or go-between reached out to army top brass and other key political leaders to strike a deal.
When U Htin Kyaw resigned over health reasons, he was seen as a gentleman with a soft-spoken style and few enemies; the military generals don’t have issues with U Htin Kyaw and seem to respect him. A top general once said the military had no problem with the president, as he had never antagonized the army.
According to the Constitution, if the president passes away while in office or retires, the first vice president becomes acting president and an election must be held to elect a new vice president. The president is then elected from among the three vice presidents. Former army General Myint Swe, who is from the military faction, is the current first vice president. He will now be acting president.
The new president will be appointed by Parliament within seven working days, according to the country’s Constitution.
U Win Myint, 67, the Lower House Speaker and a senior NLD member trusted by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, submitted his resignation shortly after U Htin Kyaw’s sudden departure the same day, prompting speculation that he will be Myanmar’s next president.
He is believed to be one of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s favorites among other senior NLD members. There are many more on the list – Dr. Myo Aung, chairman of the Naypyitaw Council, Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, chief minister of Mandalay Region, and Dr. Aung Moe Nyo, chief minister of Magwe Region. There are also several capable women candidates, ethnic leaders and even Ko Min Ko Naing – who is now in his early 50s and was one of the leading figures of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising but not a member of NLD. He is seen as close to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
But it seems that U Win Myint might be the likely choice.
He became the Lower House speaker in February 2016 after the NLD won the general election in 2015. It is still unclear who will replace U Win Myint in the powerful parliamentary position.
The current deputy house speaker is U T Khun Myat, an ethnic Kachin and descendent of a prominent Kachin traditional ruling Duwa family. He was a member of the opposition Union Solidarity Development Party but he is close to U Shwe Mann, former general, former house speaker and powerful ally of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In procedure, he will succeed U Win Myint but no one knows yet.
When he was Lower House speaker, U Win Myint’s relations with army representatives were up and down.
Known to be conservative and loyal to the party, he was seen to defend the government and Parliament during his term.
In the past, The Irrawaddy has predicted that in order to improve relations with the armed forces, the state counselor will likely choose someone who can maintain cordial relations with top brass. More importantly, she will need someone she can trust and from who she can expect absolute loyalty – like her friend and confidante U Htin Kyaw.
Observers will also watch the army’s reaction to the sudden departure of U Htin Kyaw. In this game, it will be wise if they preserve the status quo and take credit for accommodating the transition and election of the new president.
The generals are unlikely to rock the boat but instead will see how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD leaders make their next move.