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From 'invisible' to man in Myanmar spotlight

On Thursday, Mr Htin Kyaw will be Myanmar's first civilian president since 1962. He has been in Ms Suu Kyi's inner circle for decades and is described as having "unimpeachable integrity" and "wise".
On Thursday, Mr Htin Kyaw will be Myanmar's first civilian president since 1962. He has been in Ms Suu Kyi's inner circle for decades and is described as having "unimpeachable integrity" and "wise".PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Tall, soft-spoken and almost self-effacing, Mr Htin Kyaw will on Wednesday be the focus of a handover ceremony in Naypyitaw. The next day, the 69-year-old will assume his duties as Myanmar's first civilian president since 1962, and will preside over a fractious and volatile country in a still-fragile experiment with democracy.

Pundits and the media scrambled to find out more about Mr Htin Kyaw when he was nominated on March 10 by the National League for Democracy (NLD). His was a classic case of always present yet virtually invisible.

Mr Htin Kyaw has been a feature of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi's inner circle for decades. Yet he went unnoticed as the Nobel laureate, detained for 15 of 20 years, was the darling of the media and the international community.

In Myanmar, locals at roadside tea stalls would mutter quietly about "The Lady" while casting sidelong glances at other tables for suspected informers.

As a writer, Mr Htin Kyaw has used the pen name Dala Ban - the name of a famous Mon warrior; he is part-ethnic Mon. He is the son of prominent writer and intellectual Min Thu Wun, an early leader of the NLD and well known to Ms Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San, the independence hero.

Mr Htin Kyaw's wife, Ms Su Su Lwin, is also close to Ms Suu Kyi and is herself the daughter of a former army colonel, the late U Lwin, who helped set up the NLD.

WELCOME NOMINATION

U Htin Kyaw… is a stellar choice, well respected, unimpeachable integrity, and a very nice man.

HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR THANT MYINT-U, on learning that Mr Htin Kyaw had been nominated as president

The President-elect was educated in Rangoon University and Britain, where he studied computer science. Friends say he is quick on e-mail. He has had a varied career, holding positions in the civil service in the 1970s and 80s.

He is lately helping to run the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation named after Ms Suu Kyi's mother, which provides development aid and skills training in Ms Suu Kyi's constituency south of Yangon.

Mr Htin Kyaw was one of the handful of people allowed to visit Ms Suu Kyi during her long years of arrest, mostly in the old bungalow on the shores of Inya Lake. In September 2000, when Ms Suu Kyi was free but seemingly not allowed to travel outside Yangon, she decided to probe the boundaries and tried to take a train to Mandalay.

Mr Htin Kyaw, who was with her, was among dozens of NLD supporters arrested at the railway station in Yangon. Ms Suu Kyi was sent back to her house, while Mr Htin Kyaw was taken to Insein prison, where he was to spend four months.

Two NLD supporters who were with him in jail recalled in interviews this month with the BBC how Mr Htin Kyaw would receive food from visitors but give it away to other inmates.

One of them, Mr Thein Swe, said Mr Htin Kyaw was not interested in power, and treated all people, rich or poor, with equal respect.

When Ms Suu Kyi was released in 2010 and spoke to a crowd outside her gate in Yangon's University Avenue, he was beside her in his usual spotless white Burmese jacket. At one point, she leaned over and spoke into his ear. But all the cameras were trained on her.

Ms Suu Kyi herself is barred from the presidency under the junta-era Constitution because of her foreign family links - her two sons are British citizens. Unusually for Myanmar's outspoken political environment, no criticism of him has emerged since Ms Suu Kyi made her choice. "Like his preferred white jacket, Htin Kyaw is known to be clean, with no trace of corruption tainting his respected if little-known resume," wrote Mr Aung Zaw, editor of the online journal The Irrawaddy.

Minutes after Mr Htin Kyaw was nominated, those who did know his background reacted with delight. Historian and author Thant Myint-U tweeted: "U Htin Kyaw… is a stellar choice, well respected, unimpeachable integrity, and a very nice man."

Separately yesterday, a party insider, who asked not to be named, wrote to The Straits Times describing Mr Htin Kyaw as "erudite, cosmopolitan, learned, softly-spoken, kindly, wise, thoughtful".

"I have spoken to him on a number of issues down the years, primarily economics and history, and came away nothing but impressed," he wrote. "When his name first came up for the top spot, I hardly dared hope."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'From 'invisible' to man in Myanmar spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe