Today, U Htin Kyaw was sworn in as Burma’s new President. 

Seen in the context of Burma’s recent history, today’s ceremony holds great significance.  U Htin Kyaw will be Burma’s first civilian president since 1962.  The leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, blocked from the presidency herself by the military regime’s constitution, turned to her close confidant, himself a former political prisoner, as her pick for the presidency.  He will lead a largely civilian cabinet that includes former opposition activists including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who will hold four portfolios.  The cabinet is drawn from the ruling NLD, other political parties (including the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the Mon National Party), the private sector and academia; it also includes, by law, three members nominated by Burma’s powerful military.

Today has personal significance for IRI.  In our Asia division, we work alongside a team member who has direct experience of Burma’s brutal military regime, and over the long years of IRI’s support to democratic activists we have partnered with countless others who have demonstrated such resilience and determination to bring change to their country.  So today, as we congratulate Burma on its new leadership we also pay tribute to our friends and partners who have led this fight, both from inside and outside Burma.    

Yet while not ignoring the symbolic importance of this day, it is worth remembering that today is just one more step in a transition process.  As one report so aptly put it: today is a “milestone on, rather than an end to, the country’s political journey.”   To give true, lasting meaning to the struggle and sacrifice of so many ordinary people to get to this day will depend in part on what happens tomorrow and in the days, months and years that follow. 

Last November’s largely peaceful, successful elections were won overwhelmingly by the opposition NLD.  This has given the new government and parliament a tremendous mandate to take on the myriad problems the country faces including ongoing armed conflict, rampant corruption, outdated infrastructure and a ruined education system.  The NLD must also reckon with the still powerful military that holds a quarter of parliamentary seats – and thus can thwart any efforts at constitutional change, which require 75 percent approval in the parliament.  The military retains control of ministries that oversee the police and the powerful general administration department that touches the day to day lives of all citizens.  Tackling these systemic issues and crafting a system that works for the good of everyone in the country will take time and courage by all stakeholders.  It will require a clear vision of what needs to be done in the best interests of the country, and a willingness to not bow to what might be politically or ideologically popular.  It will require leadership. 

Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD demonstrated strong leadership in the decades they spent in opposition and literally under the gun.  As they now make their own difficult transition to ruling party, assuming responsibility for this beautiful, damaged country, they have an opportunity to demonstrate that leadership again.  To paraphrase the new president, they must now work towards a government and a “constitution which prioritizes peace, [has] a democratic federal state and national reconciliation and will work to have better living standards.”

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