NAYPYIDAW: Myanmar entered a new era on Wednesday as Aung San Suu Kyi’s democracy movement took power after 50 years of military domination, with a close aide of the Nobel Laureate sworn in as President.
Htin Kyaw, a school friend and confidant of the democracy champion, succeeds former general Thein Sein, who has helmed reforms that have transformed Myanmar from hermit state to an unexpected political and economic hope story.
Suu Kyi, 70, is barred from becoming President by the junta-scripted Constitution but has declared that she will steer the government anyway. Htin Kyaw is expected to act as her proxy.
The handover at the junta-built Parliament in the capital Naypyidaw marks the final act of a prolonged transition since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party swept the November elections.
The NLD won 80 percent of parliamentary seats, handing them a massive public mandate to rule.
They are tasked with reviving a battered economy and a society straitjacketed by the army, which has ruthlessly ruled since 1962.
Welcoming a new age of civilian government, the bespectacled new President pledged to be “faithful to the people of the republic of the union of Myanmar.”
“I will uphold and abide by the constitution and its laws. I will carry out my responsibilities uprightly and to the best of my ability,” the 69-year-old told the chamber.
In a later ceremony at the presidential palace, Thein Sein symbolically handed over to his successor as a smiling Suu Kyi looked on.
But the army is far from leaving the political scene. The military holds a quarter of all parliamentary seats, a gift of a constitution it scripted, and holds three key posts in the cabinet.
Suu Kyi, the talisman of the fight for democracy, joins that same cabinet, holding a clutch of positions including foreign minister.
Expectations for an NLD-dominated government run high among Myanmar’s 51 million-strong population, but the new government faces a steep task.
Civil wars continue to rage in ethnic minority borderlands, poverty is widespread and the military still holds huge political and economic powers.
NLD lawmakers also have little practical experience of government.
Some were jailed by the junta, including most famously Suu Kyi who was held under house arrest for her efforts to lead the democracy movement.
But on a day of history, the party faithful were not allowing their spirits to be dampened by the challenges ahead.
“I’m really happy. I am also remembering my colleagues who sacrificed for this battle (for democracy),” said NLD lawmaker Aye Naing.
Among a smattering of ordinary NLD supporters outside parliament, Yin Myint May welcomed the formal handover to a new government.
“It is the biggest day for us,” she said.
“Remember we started (the democracy fight) in 1990,” she added, referring to elections won in a landslide by the NLD that were simply ignored by the junta.
Myanmar has witnessed a staggering political change since 2011.
Reforms have been shepherded by outgoing President Thein Sein, a former junta general.
Investors and tourists have begun to pile in as many of the junta’s worst repressions have eased promising a better future to a public who now have access to mobile phones, cheaper cars and other coveted consumer goods.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released and media censorship has been lifted, while most western sanctions have been rolled back as a reward.