NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - Myanmar’s powerful military questioned Aung San Suu Kyi’s picks for president and vice president on Monday as tension simmered between the two sides a day before parliament votes on who should get the top job.
Relations between the armed forces and Suu Kyi will define the success or otherwise of Myanmar’s most significant break from military rule since the army seized power in 1962, even though the constitution bars her from taking the presidency.
The democracy leader says she will run the country whoever becomes president, and her choice looks certain to be confirmed by parliament as her National League for Democracy (NLD) holds a sizeable majority after winning a landslide victory in a general election in November.
Last week, the NLD picked a close friend of Suu Kyi, Htin Kyaw, as its presidential candidate and Henry Van Thio to be a vice president to represent numerous ethnic minorities.
The military, which holds a quarter of the seats in parliament, picked a third candidate.
On Monday, the military member of a parliamentary commission formed to vet candidates abstained from voting on Htin Kyaw because he is not an elected MP, even though the constitution does not stipulate a candidate must be a lawmaker.
The military MP, Major General Than Soe, opposed Henry Van Thio because the armed forces needed time to look into whether his stay abroad might disqualify him, said the chairman of the joint houses of parliament, Mahn Win Khaing Than.
The candidates were confirmed anyway as the NLD held sway on the commission, but military disapproval highlighted a widening rift between Suu Kyi and the armed forces as her party prepares to take power on April 1.
“We will have a new democratic president tomorrow anyway. The people will prevail,” said Zaw Thein, an NLD lawmaker.
Suu Kyi has made it clear she would run the country through a presidential proxy.
Sources in Suu Kyi’s camp say she has grown increasingly frustrated with military intransigence on issues ranging from amending the constitution to relatively minor formalities such as the location of the handover of power.
NLD lawmakers also privately said the military’s choice of Myint Swe as its candidate went against the spirit of reconciliation Suu Kyi says she is seeking to foster.
Myint Swe served the junta as head of the feared military intelligence and is on the U.S. sanctions list. If the vote on Tuesday goes as expected, he will become one of two vice presidents.
In his first public comments since Myint Swe’s selection, Brigadier General Tin San Naing, the spokesman of the military caucus in parliament, told Reuters Suu Kyi was “like a foreigner”, when answering a question on how the military planned to work with the NLD.
He repeated the military’s opposition to any changes to the junta-drafted constitution which bars her from presidency because her children are British.
“She is not qualified as president according to the constitution, as she has attachments to a foreign country,” said Tin San Naing. “It is very important for the security of the country. It’s impossible to amend the constitution.”
Dr Zaw Myint Maung, an NLD spokesman and senior party leader, objected to the remarks, noting that Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the founder of the country’s modern army.
“General Aung San is the father of the military. Aung San Suu Kyi is born from two Burmese citizens. It’s sad that they said she is a foreigner,” he told Reuters.
Tin San Naing dismissed suggestions that Myint Swe, who is close to former dictator Than Shwe, was a hardline candidate, and said he was highly qualified for the job.
“He has military and governing experience,” he said.
The president picks the cabinet that will take over from President Thein Sein’s outgoing government on April 1, with the exception of the heads of the home, defense and border security ministries, who will be appointed by the armed forces chief.
(This story corrects in paragraphs 14, 16 and 19 corrects name of army MP to Tin San Naing)
Additional reporting and writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Simon Webb and Mike Collett-White