The times they are a changing – but who will be in charge?

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BY the time I arrive in Yangon on my next trip to Burma in mid-March, we might have a new president of the country.  The new MPs have already taken up their seats in parliament, including the hundreds of eager, curious new representatives from the National League for Democracy (NLD). That will be very interesting, to see whether Aung San Suu Kyi can control this eclectic mix of political novices and old warriors, just at it will be fascinating to see who she nominates to be president. Suu Kyi herself is still banned from standing for president by the old 2008 military constitution, but as the NLD now has such a thumping majority in parliament the person who she nominates in her stead is sure to succeed Thein Sein as president. But who will that be? And will his, or her, identity really matter that much anyway, as Suu Kyi will really be running the show in the background, much like Sonia Gandhi ran the Congress Party governments in India.

Her pick probably won’t be from amongst the old guard, and it has to be a member of the NLD and someone whom she can trust implicitly – so the smart money is now on her personal doctor, Dr Tin Myo Win.  He is a long-time confidant, and a person who has so far resisted the temptation to carve out any independent political role for himself at all. That would make him a perfect cipher for a party leader, Suu Kyi,  steering from behind, or ruling “from above”, as she has put it in the past. As the NLD is run by such a small cabal of Suu Kyi and her closest advisers, it seems unlikely that she would look outside this magic circle for her presidential choice – so the doctor would be a perfect fit.

Some in the West have bridled at this sort of arrangement, claiming that such a “puppet” president would be bad for Burma’s budding democracy. But if it were not for the military constitution, Suu Kyi would clearly be president herself, and together with the overwhelming NLD victory at the last election I think this gives her the right to nominate whoever she wants, and to rule through him. I am optimistic that the military block in parliament, the 25% of unelected MPs, will not remain as monolithically united against constitutional change as people think, and that within time enough of them will realise the futility of frustrating more democratic change to switch sides and vote the NLD to change the present terrible constitution – at which point Burma will get the president that it really wants!