March 22, 2016 / 4:17 AM / 4 years ago

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi set to steer cabinet from within

NAYPYITAW/YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s president-elect nominated Aung San Suu Kyi to join the incoming cabinet on Tuesday, giving the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader a formal role in the government that the constitution bars her from leading.

National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at Union Parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Suu Kyi guided the NLD to a historic landslide election win in November, but cannot assume the presidency under the charter drafted by the former junta because her two sons are British citizens, as was her late husband.

She has pledged to circumvent the ban by running the country through a proxy president, and last week the parliament nominated Suu Kyi’s confidant, Htin Kyaw, for the top job.

Until the cabinet nominations were read out to parliament by the speaker on Tuesday, it had been unclear whether Suu Kyi would join the executive or would chose to guide the government from outside as the leader of the ruling party.

The constitution bars serving ministers from political party activities or sitting in parliament as lawmakers.

“It doesn’t matter how many ministries she takes, as she will run the whole government anyway,” said Win Htein, a senior NLD politician close to Suu Kyi.

The 18-member cabinet list submitted by President-elect Htin Kyaw to parliament did not specify the portfolios each minister would hold.

But a separate, unofficial list obtained by Reuters from sources in parliament showed Nobel peace prize laureate Suu Kyi’s name next to four ministries: minister of the president’s office, foreign affairs, electric power and energy, and education.

It was unclear whether Suu Kyi would run all four departments when the new government takes office next month. A senior NLD member told Reuters her name was put forward for several ministries after some prospective candidates declined to join the cabinet at the last minute or could not be identified.

FOREIGN MINISTER

Serving as foreign minister would allow Suu Kyi to formally meet foreign diplomats and represent Myanmar overseas, while also guaranteeing a seat on the National Defence and Security Council, an important presidential advisory group dominated by the still-powerful military.

Running the power and energy ministry would give her direct responsibility for decisions on the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project, one of the thorniest issues facing the new government.

Outgoing President Thein Sein angered Beijing by suspending the project shortly after the military ceded power to his quasi-civilian government in 2011. Last week Beijing signalled it will push the new government to resume it.

Win Htein and another top NLD figure, Zaw Myint Maung, told Reuters Suu Kyi was likely to stay on as a nominal head of the party, but the day-to-day running of it would be transferred to a team of five senior party leaders for the time being.

“Aung San Suu Kyi will entrust the party in parliament in the hands of other NLD elders, as expected, and assume a role within the cabinet,” said Nyantha Maw Lin, managing director at political consultancy Vriens & Partners in Yangon.

“She understands that ultimately, power lies with the executive, which holds the reins on the peace process, foreign policy, the economy, and most importantly, relations with the military.”

TECHNOCRATS

A large proportion of the proposed ministers are highly educated and technocrats with experience of studying or working abroad, according to official biographies, government sources and reports in the local media.

For example, the party gave the ministry of agriculture, livestock and irrigation to Dr. Aung Thu, former rector of Yangon University and professor of mathematics.

The list also included former senior government officials, as well as a member of the army-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), reflecting Suu Kyi’s stated desire to form an inclusive government.

“I believe the NLD proposed my name as the minister because they believe in me,” said Thein Swe, a retired military official and a senior USDP member nominated for minister of labour, immigration and population. “I will prioritize (the people) and will look after the people.”

Three key ministries remain under the control of the armed forces, who also control 25 percent of seats in parliament.

Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing re-nominated two out of three current military ministers, but will replace Lieutenant General Ko Ko at the home affairs ministry.

An investigation by Harvard Law School in 2014 accused troops commanded by Lt. Gen. Ko Ko of torturing and killing civilians while fighting an ethnic rebellion in the 2000s.

Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski and Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Alex Richardson

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