March 22, 2018 / 10:31 AM / 7 months ago

Meditation and law: The Suu Kyi loyalist tipped for Myanmar presidency

YANGON (Reuters) - Win Myint, the long-serving member of Myanmar’s ruling party who is expected to become the country’s next president within days, is described by colleagues as a skilled political operator with a crucial quality - loyalty to de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Win Myint, who recently resigned his post of speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, leaves the parliament, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

The job is vacant after another Suu Kyi loyalist, Htin Kyaw, resigned due to ill-health on Wednesday.

Suu Kyi - who remains a national heroine in Myanmar despite growing international criticism over the Rohingya crisis in the northwest - is barred by the military-drafted constitution from assuming the top job because her sons have British citizenship.

Still, she wields absolute authority in the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) after vowing on the eve of her 2015 election victory to run the country from “above the president” - an arrangement that means the change is unlikely to distort the balance of power in a country where the army remains powerful.

State media confirmed on Thursday the 66-year-old Win Myint was poised to take over when the country’s parliament elects a new president, in a vote that must be held within seven days, after he resigned as lower house speaker on Wednesday.

“U Win Myint, 66, is considered to be one of the candidates for the presidency, which was vacated by U Htin Kyaw for health reasons,” said the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar daily.

Suu Kyi is known for keeping her cards close to her chest and operating with a very narrow group of trusted advisors. Win Myint, who has been an NLD member from its humble beginnings almost three decades ago, is among the few to whom she has given serious responsibility since taking office almost two years ago.

“If I have to describe him in one word, I would say: ‘a good person, and loyal to Aung San Suu Kyi’,” said Ye Htut, an upper house NLD lawmaker.

Ye Htut said that when he was invited to Win Myint’s daughter’s wedding last year, he specifically asked guests not to bring any gifts to the ceremony. “It’s obvious he’s an honest man who’s not seeking anything for his own benefit.”

Win Myint comes from Myanmar’s southern agricultural heartland in the Ayeyarwady delta region. He worked as a senior lawyer in the 1980s and took part in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, later serving three years in an internment camp.

Win Myint, who recently resigned his post of speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, leaves the parliament, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

“He usually takes walks in early mornings and does mediation to improve his health and practice mindfulness,” said Cho Cho Win, a lower house NLD lawmaker.

CRITICS STIFLED

Win Myint’s critics, including some Yangon-based diplomats, say that while he is loyal and honest, the quality of debate during his tenure as speaker deteriorated as he silenced dissenting voices - including those from the NLD.

Nyo Nyo Thin, a former Yangon region lawmaker, has criticized Win Myint’s performance as the speaker, saying parliament, where the NLD enjoys a comfortable majority, was not robust enough in performing its check-and-balance role.

“Parliament has responsibilities to control and watch over the government’s activities for its actions and policies, but there is no remarkable activity in the parliament when he was in charge,” said Nyo Nyo Thin.

Reuters was unable to reach Win Myint for comment on the criticism.

The president-to-be was among a few dozen NLD members, including Suu Kyi, elected to parliament in 2012 by-elections as the country began a dramatic transition from nearly 50 years of military rule.

Before his appointment as lower house speaker in April 2016, he shared an austere one-room chamber with his wife in a compound for lawmakers in Myanmar’s purpose-built capital Naypyitaw, living next to other leading NLD figures.

“He is very conscious, self-aware and very clever. He takes time to do things in a steady way. He could remember and recite laws without reading because he studied the law in-depth,” said a long-time NLD friend and a senior party member Han Tha Myint.

According to the country’s constitution, the more senior of two vice presidents will stand in as president until a new leader is elected by parliament.

On Thursday, parliament elected a new lower house speaker and laid the ground for a presidential vote expected on Friday or Monday.

Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Additional reporting and writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Alex Richardson

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