RANGOON, Burma — For years, Htin Kyaw was content to stay a few steps outside of the spotlight on his close friend Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s charismatic pro-democracy leader. He’s been with her from the early days of the movement, through her long periods of house arrest to their party’s jubilant general-election victory in November.
Even as Burma’s parliament on Tuesday elected him head of the first civilian government in the Southeast Asian nation in decades, Htin Kyaw deflected attention back to the woman who has spent a lifetime fighting for democracy.
“This is a victory of the people. This is sister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory,” Burma’s new president told reporters as he left the assembly hall after the vote.
Since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party scored a landslide victory last year, she has made it clear that she will manage Burma’s new government from a perch she calls “above the president.” Nonetheless, colleagues said that the even-keeled Htin Kyaw is a strong choice to manage the perilous transition as the party takes over from the military-backed government next month, even though he has never held elected office.
“He is one of her most trusted confidants,” said Aung Kyi Nyunt, a member of parliament who was the NLD party whip. “He is a quiet man, simple, very gentle in his way of speaking.”
Burma’s generals continue to hold outsize power, with key ministries and vast business holdings still under their control. They vetoed an effort by Suu Kyi to circumvent a constitutional provision that bars her serving as president.
“It’s going to be a very, very critical relationship,” said Priscilla A. Clapp, a senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace who served as chief of mission and charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Burma from 1999 to 2002.
The military members of parliament, whose seats are guaranteed by the constitution, chose a retired lieutenant general, seen as a hard-liner, as their choice for first vice president. Myint Swe, who formerly ran the military’s intelligence bureau, was confirmed Tuesday.
Last year, he clamped down on student protesters while serving as chief minister of Rangoon, also known as Yangon. He is among several Burmese businessmen barred by the U.S. Treasury Department from doing business with American citizens.
When asked about Myint Swe last week, State Department spokesman John Kirby reiterated the U.S. position on the military reservation in parliament, calling it one of the “structural and systemic flaws in Burma’s constitution.” The United States has supported Burma’s transition from military rule by easing sanctions and promoting foreign investment.
In a statement Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the presidential election as “another important step forward in Burma’s democratic transition” and commended those in Burma who “continue to work together to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.”
On Tuesday, Burma’s parliamentary body chose as second vice president Henry Van Thio, who is a member of parliament from Suu Kyi’s party and a Christian from the country’s Chin ethnic minority.
The new president inherits a country of 51 million with jarring poverty, creaking infrastructure and dismal schools and health care. Its economy grew at more than 8 percent last year but is expected to moderate, according to the World Bank. Burma, also known as Myanmar, remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.
Despite a high-profile peace accord with armed ethnic militias in November, fighting has continued in Burma’s border areas. The country has hundreds of thousands who have been displaced in conflict areas, as well as an estimated 140,000 Rohingya Muslims who have been living in camps since clashes with their Buddhist neighbors in 2012.
Htin Kyaw, 69, was born in Rangoon and attended primary school with Suu Kyi, his sister Hta Cho said in an interview. But she said that “they only became close friends after 1988,” the year Suu Kyi returned to Burma from Britain during a student uprising and was propelled to the forefront of the pro-democracy movement.
As a young man, Htin Kyaw was fond of solitary pursuits such as swimming and reading. In college, he changed his given name to Htin Kyaw in honor of a famous literary detective he adored, a sort of Burmese Sherlock Holmes, his sister said.
He attended a university in Rangoon, earning a master’s degree in statistics in 1968, and went on to graduate work in computer science at the University of London. He later studied at the Arthur D. Little School of Management in Cambridge, Mass.
He spent much of the time from 1992 onward working with Suu Kyi and was detained by Burma’s military junta in 2000 while attempting to accompany her on a trip outside Rangoon. His wife, Su Su Lwin, is a member of parliament and is also close to Suu Kyi, Clapp said.
Suu Kyi, speaking privately with party members last week, said she had chosen Htin Kyaw because of his unflinching loyalty, not because of his length of service to the party, and said she felt he would be a good representative of the government, in Burma and internationally.
Eaint Thiri Thu in Rangoon and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.