Myanmar has sworn-in Htin Kyaw as the country’s first civilian president in half a century, a man who is expected to act as a proxy for Aung San Suu Kyi in her fight to end the army’s grip on power.
The 69-year-old, dressed in the National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s orange shirt, took an oath during a short ceremony and suggested that the junta-drafted constitution that barred Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency will be changed.
“Our new government will implement national reconciliation, peace in the country, emergence of a constitution that will pave the way to a democratic union, and enhance the living standard of the people,” he told members of parliament.
“We have the duty to work for the emergence of a constitution that is appropriate for our country and also in accordance with democratic standards,” he added.
Some members of the NLD, a party Aung San Suu Kyi formed in the late 1980s which has struggled for democratic reforms, had tears in their eyes.
“I couldn’t sleep last night. Our president U Htin Kyaw’s speech is something we have never heard before in the country,” said NLD lawmaker Thiri Yadana, 28.
“He promised that he will work for the country with the respect to our leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s such a big step and this has happened because everybody pushed together forward.”
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is blocked from becoming president as she has children with foreign nationality, a clause the military leaders wrote into a 2008 constitution. Her late husband was British.
Also under the constitution, the army retains 25% of seats in parliament, giving it an effective veto on constitutional change.
Barred from the top post, the longtime democracy campaigner is tipped to head four cabinet posts in Myanmar’s new government, taking the foreign affairs, president’s office, education, and energy ministries.
Her positions in the cabinet as well as domestic and international fame would give her wide sweeping powers.
The president, who under law is the most powerful person in the country, is a trusted friend who was hand picked by Aung San Suu Kyi. Before she won a landslide in November, Aung San Suu Kyi had already vowed to be “above the president”.
Running the president’s office ministry would allow her to keep close to President Kyaw. Her appointment as foreign minister would also put her on the national defence and security council with the president, two vice-presidents and the head of the armed forces.
The government will formally take power on 1 April.
Three powerful ministries – defence, home affairs and border affairs – are filled by members of the defence services, or Tatmadaw.
Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing attended the ceremony. Outgoing president Thein Sein, a former general who pushed through the democratic reforms that led to his political demise, sat for a brief photo opportunity next to the new president.
Two vice-presidents, army-backed candidate and retired general Myint Swe, and Henry Van Thio, an ethnic minority Chin MP, were also sworn in on Wednesday.
Hundreds of diplomats, journalists and representatives from non-governmental organisations arrived at the parliament in the junta-built capital, Naypyidaw, for the ceremony.
US president Barack Obama hailed an “extraordinary moment” in Myanmar’s history.
“Htin Kyaw’s inauguration represents a historic milestone in the country’s transition to a democratically elected, civilian-led government,” Obama said in a statement.
But he warned of “significant challenges going forward,” including on economic development and working to securing personal freedoms for all.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, vice-president of the European parliament who also worked as chief observer during the November elections, said it was a significant day for the history of Myanmar.
“It is the conclusion of the electoral process with the handover of power, something that a few years ago would have been unthinkable,” he told Channel News Asia.
A private inaugural dinner is planned for the evening.
Reuters contributed to this report