Myanmar has sworn in its first civilian head of state in more than five decades.
Seventy-year-old Htin Kyaw took the oath of office Wednesday during a brief ceremony before a joint session of parliament, pledging loyalty “to the republic of the Union of Myanmar.” The country’s two vice presidents, Myint Swe and Henry Van Tio, took the oath alongside Htin Kyaw.
Htin Kyaw’s swearing in formally marks the end of total or partial military rule in Myanmar dating back to 1962. He succeeds Thein Sein, a former general who took power in 2011 when the junta turned over control to a quasi-civilian government and pushed through sweeping political and economic reforms.
“It’s not the full democracy we might have hoped for, of course, because the military still has a very strong role in the country and in the economy,” Sean Turnell of Australia’s Macquarie University, a veteran analyst of Myanmar politics, told VOA. “It’s not democracy in full measure, but it’s democracy in large measure, so it’s a very special day.”
In his inaugural speech, the new president vowed to change the current constitution so that it fully embraces democratic standards. The constitution drafted by the military before it turned over power guaranteed the military would hold 25 percent of all parliamentary seats, plus the key ministerial posts of home affairs and defense.
A constitutional provision that bars anyone with a foreign-born spouse or children from the presidency was used to block democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming head of state. Her late husband was British, as are her two sons.
Nevertheless, the Nobel Peace laureate has indicated she will rule Myanmar through Htin Kyaw, her childhood friend and longtime confidant. She will also serve as one of 18 members of the new president’s Cabinet, and is expected to simultaneously hold the ministries of foreign affairs, education, energy and the president’s office.
“She’s going to be very much behind the scenes, as well, even beyond the portfolio,” Turnell said. “But the portfolio is paramount anyway. I think it’s important that she grab those posts, particularly regarding foreign affairs. There’s a technical reason because that gives her access to the National Security Council, which in many ways is the most powerful body in Myanmar.”
After the National League for Democracy had won overwhelming control of both chambers of parliament in November’s elections, its control over the presidency was assured. Htin Kyaw was elected by this House on March 15.
U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has helped lead the West’s re-engagement with the country formerly known as Burma, applauded His Kyaw’s inauguration Wednesday as “a historic milestone in the country’s transition to a democratically elected, civilian-led government.”
“This extraordinary moment in Burma’s history is a testament to its people, institutions, and leaders who have worked together to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, and it speaks to the significance of the reforms the country has undertaken since 2011,” Obama added in a statement.