Suu Kyi aide confirmed as president nominee as army picks hardliner

Suu Kyi aide confirmed as lower house presidential nominee

Naypyidaw (Myanmar) (AFP) - An aide of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi was a step closer to becoming the country's first civilian leader in generations Friday after sailing through a parliamentary vote, while the military put forward a hardline retired general as its vice president nominee.

Htin Kyaw, a respected writer who helps run Suu Kyi's charitable foundation, was seen as the top choice to act as a proxy for the democracy veteran who is barred from the office by a junta-scripted charter.

One further vote of approval is needed in the combined houses dominated by Suu Kyi loyalists before Htin Kyaw can officially be anointed leader of the nation that has been run by the military for decades.

His parliamentary confirmation comes as the military put forward their own candidate, Yangon chief minister Myint Swe, a retired army general seen as an ally of former strongman Than Shwe.

The decision is likely to prove controversial in a country still burdened by the legacy of nearly 50 years of rule by the military, which retains significant influence including a quarter of the parliament's seats.

Suu Kyi is beloved by many in Myanmar and the uncontested figurehead of the country's long democracy struggle, but months of negotiations have failed to convince the military to change a charter clause that blocks her from top office.

She has nevertheless vowed to rule "above" the next president as she strives to meet the soaring expectations of millions of voters who handed her National League for Democracy party a thundering election win in November.

- 'Deserving' choice -

The combined houses are expected to vote between three candidates next week, with a new president set to replace outgoing President Thein Sein at the end of March.

With the NLD dominating both houses, Htin Kyaw is likely clinch the top post with a comfortable lead.

The NLD's other candidate is from the upper house, ethnic Chin MP Henry Van Thio. Both he and Myint Swe would then become vice presidents.

Even the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar, which normally shies away from coverage of Suu Kyi and her party, on Friday said Htin Kyaw "is favoured to ascend to the presidency absent any irregularities in the process".

Though he did not run in November's polls, Htin Kyaw is a close and trusted confidante.

He sometimes drove for the democracy activist during her brief moments of freedom from house arrest, and was at her side when she was finally freed in 2010.

Htin Kyaw commands significant respect in Myanmar, partly because his father was a legendary writer and early member of the NLD. He is married to sitting NLD MP Su Su Lwin, whose late father was the party's respected spokesman.

"We are going to see our first ever civilian president. He is endowed with presidential qualifications and has worked alongside Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for democracy. He is a deserving one," Tin Thit, a lower house NLD lawmaker told AFP. Daw means auntie and is a term of respect.

Suu Kyi was first to cast her ballot in the lower house vote that saw Htin Kyaw win support from across the party spectrum.

Barred from top political office because she married and had children with a foreigner, she has not outlined what her future role will be.

Some have suggested she could mimic India's Sonia Gandhi, who wielded huge influence over her Congress party's administration despite having no official government role.

Friday marked the second time Myanmar's military has chosen Myint Swe, who is linked to the deadly crackdown on monk-led democracy rallies in 2007, for the vice presidency.

He was first put forward under the former quasi-civilian government in 2012, but soon disqualified under the same charter clause that blocks Suu Kyi because his son-in-law was an Australian citizen.

A military spokesman declined to comment about whether this issue has been resolved.

Myanmar has seen dramatic reforms since the end of outright military rule in 2011.

But a new government will face steep challenges to improve the lives of the impoverished nation's 51 million people and end persistent civil wars in ethnic borderlands.

Relations with the military will be key and Suu Kyi has pledged a government of national reconciliation.

She held shock talks with Than Shwe last year, after which his grandson said the former iron-fisted ruler saw her as the country's "future leader".