On Nov. 13, 2010, just days after Burma’s military rulers staged a flawed election that gave their proxy party a majority in parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. She had spent the better part of two decades inside her villa on the shores of Inya Lake, in the moldering former colonial capital of Rangoon, refusing a standing offer to return to her family in England and leave the generals to continue their ironfisted rule, which was unbroken since a 1962 coup.
It wasn’t yet clear how long she would remain free — Suu Kyi had been released before — or what conditions might be placed on her release, but supporters and journalists rushed to catch a glimpse of the liberated Nobel Peace Prize winner. All eyes were on Suu Kyi, as she struggled to be heard over the crowd. “We haven’t seen each other for so long, so we have many things to talk about,” she said, according to the BBC. “People must work in unison,” she added. “Only then can we reach our goal.”
As she spoke, a man wearing a spotless white shirt stood at her right shoulder. Photographs from the day show her leaning over to speak into the ear of the man, her close aide, Htin Kyaw. The photographers reaching to get a shot of Burma’s most loved woman probably wished he would get out of the way. More than five years on, he is now in the center of the frame.
Htin Kyaw, 69, remained at Suu Kyi’s side as she evolved from prisoner of conscience to politician, leading her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to a stunning electoral victory. Campaigning almost on her personal popularity alone, the NLD won almost 80% of seats up for grabs at the polls in November. By rights, she should be President, but the generals thought of that. In Burma’s 2008 constitution, they inserted a stipulation, targeted at Suu Kyi, which stated that Burmese with close family members who are foreigners cannot become head of state. (Suu Kyi was married to a Briton and thus has two British sons.)
On Tuesday, the NLD wielded its majority to elect Htin Kyaw as President instead. In a vote on Tuesday, Htin Kyaw received 360 out of 652 votes from lawmakers, who include a contingent of military representatives who automatically take a quarter of seats. He was chosen over a military nominee — the army retains significant role in politics under the constitution — who will become Vice President alongside a third candidate chosen by the NLD. On April 1, Htin Kyaw will become the country’s first proper civilian leader in 54 years.
Suu Kyi has already said she will control the President, who would have “no authority.” She will have rely on Htin Kyaw ‘s unbending loyalty, since he will legally be the head of state. It remains unknown whether Suu Kyi will hold any position at all in the new administration other than “puppeteer in chief,” as a leading Burmese commentator described the arrangement.
Before last week, few people knew much about Htin Kyaw. He was not among the NLD’s candidates during the election campaign, and is not known ever to have delivered a political speech in public. But many Burmese have taken to him quickly, with social-media memes declaring him “our President.” Burma historian Thant Myint-U praised the choice, calling Htin Kyaw “well respected [with] unimpeachable integrity, and a very nice man.” Burmese netizens were upset by international media reports on his nomination that referred to him first as a “driver” for Suu Kyi (although he did sometimes drive her, a party member said he was never her official chauffeur).
He’s more than that, they insist, pointing to his years of service to the cause of Burmese democracy, and the fact his father was a renowned poet. This pedigree is an important factor in a country where lineage matters (Suu Kyi herself initially gained adoration as the daughter of independence hero General Aung San, but has more than surpassed dynastic expectations).
A comprehensive official biography for the new President has not been made available, but reports say Htin Kyaw was a schoolmate of Suu Kyi — who is one year his senior — at Yangon’s Methodist English High School. He gained an economics degree before going on to study computer science at the University of London. Htin Kyaw worked for the Burmese government from the mid-1970s in the Ministries of Industry and Foreign Affairs, before resigning in 1992, two years after the junta ignored an earlier NLD election victory. He has since built a reputation as a devoted confidante to NLD chairperson Suu Kyi. He holds a directorship at a charitable foundation named for Suu Kyi’s mother, and is married to a newly elected NLD lawmaker.
During her years of house arrest, Htin Kyaw is said to have been a link between Suu Kyi and the outside world. In 2000, during a period when she was supposedly free to travel, he joined her in an attempted visit to the central Burmese city of Mandalay. According to accounts given to the BBC, Htin Kyaw was arrested after a confrontation with an army officer at a railway station, and spent four months in Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison, as Suu Kyi was returned to house arrest.
“What I noticed is he doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor,” one of his former cellmates, Thein Swe, now an NLD Member of Parliament, told the BBC. “He is not interested in people with power. He treats everyone equally and respectfully.”
His personable qualities may prove useful; the role of President could have him attending international summits, and rubbing shoulders with world leaders. But Htin Kyaw — selected primarily for his loyalty — is not likely to veer from the wishes of Suu Kyi. In all important ways, she will be the country’s new leader.