August 27, 2015 1:00 pm JST
Party coup

Military makes clear who is in charge in Myanmar

MOTOKAZU MATSUI, Nikkei staff writer

YANGON -- For those who had any doubt, the recent dismissal of the head of Myanmar's ruling party has made it clear that the military remains firmly in control of the country, even after four years on the path to democracy.

    Shwe Mann, the former leader of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, had been trying to revise the constitution to curtail the army's political influence, a move that did not sit well with the USDP's main faction or the military. His abrupt dismal was announced Aug. 13.

    The former party leader, who still retains his position as speaker of the lower house, appeared at the parliament building in Naypyitaw on Aug. 18 to address the local press. Looking as if he had made peace with what had transpired a week earlier, Shwe Mann stepped up to the podium and slowly read out a prepared statement.

    "I was criticized for running the party in an autocratic way that did not follow democratic procedures," he said. "This criticism saddens me, because that was not at all my intention. But I also do not wish to create any more confusion over my dismissal from the post of party leader. I hope for the return of political stability."

    His speeches used to receive thunderous applause from members of parliament. In a sign that his reversal of political fortunes is all but complete, his statement that day was met with near silence.

    The USDP decided to sack Shwe Mann during an emergency executive meeting on the night of Aug. 12, which the party leader did not attend. The gathering created a stir, as several hundred police officers had been deployed to guard the party's headquarters. Rumors of his downfall quickly spread, and reporters rushed to the USDP main office to confirm them.

   All this came only hours after Shwe Mann had given a speech welcoming new party recruits slated to run in the November general election. "We are already almost 100% ready for the election," he declared.

   The next day, the USDP announced that the party leader had been relieved of the "heavy burden he has endured because of his dual role as lower house speaker."

Drawn-out struggle
Shwe Mann had played a key role in Myanmar politics since the country began the process of democratization in spring 2011. As the third-most powerful figure in the military junta, he was regarded as the most likely person to become the country's president.

    He did not conceal his aspirations for the top post, but Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the most powerful person in the junta, named Thein Sein, the regime's No. 4 man at the time, as his successor. Shwe Mann accepted the decision, at least on the surface, and took on a supporting role under the new president.

    But his ambitions, it seems, did not die.

    In spring 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy scored a major victory in national by-elections. Shwe Mann immediately began working to build closer ties with the opposition leader, who had finally became a full-fledged member of parliament herself.

    In summer of the following year, parliament set up a special committee to discuss constitutional amendments, a move seen as part of Shwe Mann's attempt to reach a compromise with the NLD.

    The current constitution, adopted in 2008, sets aside a quarter of parliamentary seats for members of the military. It also grants the commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces the right to mobilize citizens in an emergency.

 

  Because of the sweeping powers and privileges it grants the military, the NLD regards the present constitution as a stumbling block to true democratization and has been consistently calling for its revision.

    A pivotal development came in June, when USDP members close to Shwe Mann proposed bills that would reduce the number of seats allocated to the army and ease the requirements for amending the constitution.
Most of the proposals were voted down, with military lawmakers voting as a bloc. But the fact that a faction of the ruling party tried to amend the constitution shows there is potential for change.

    Along the way, Aung San Suu Kyi started calling Shwe Mann an ally, expressing her confidence in him on many occasions. Shwe Mann, it appears, was hoping to form a coalition government with the NLD after the November elections, with himself as president.

Swift reprisal
Unsurprisingly, these developments irked the military. The USDP was born out of an organization supporting the junta, and many of the party's executives are former high-ranking servicemen.

    In a thinly veiled warning against any attempts to amend the constitution, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the current commander in chief of the armed forces, has repeatedly told foreign journalists that "defending the constitution is the military's responsibility."

    By July, the rift between the military and Shwe Mann had become unmistakable. Roughly 1,700 voters in his electorate, home to a large number of army personnel, asked the election board to recall the lower house speaker. The military's top brass was widely seen to be involved in this request.

    At the same time, the military has been growing closer to President Thein Sein, who took office in the spring of 2011. From the start, the president has been unenthusiastic about changing the constitution, repeatedly stating that the armed forces have a vital role to play in maintaining national sovereignty.

    Thein Sein initially indicated his intention to step down after one five-year term, due to heart trouble, but last year he changed his tune, saying he would remain in office "if the Myanmar people so wish." It is not hard to see the military's influence behind his sudden about-face.

    In July, the country was hit by serious flooding, and Min Aung Hlaing was often seen accompanying Thein Sein during his tours of affected areas. It is unclear what the two discussed, but there is little doubt they shared strong concerns about Shwe Mann's overtures.

Harsh reality
Htay Oo, the USDP's new leader, maintains that Shwe Mann's ouster was carried out in accordance with party rules. The president's office and the military have issued no statements about the leadership change, but the fact that USDP headquarters were surrounded by police during the night of the emergency meeting points strongly to government involvement.

    "Shwe Mann was purged by the president and military because he sought to destroy the military-led constitutional order to fulfill his personal ambition to become president," one local reporter said, echoing the widely held view.

    Some early news reports said Shwe Mann had been placed under house arrest, but he has been seen moving around freely and carrying out his duties as lower house speaker. The area around the USDP headquarters has also returned to normal. These are telling developments, indicating that the former party leader has been neutralized as a political foe and has no hope of another shot at power.

    This is not the first time for a Myanmar politician to fall from the height of power overnight. In 2004, then-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was No. 3 in the military, was dismissed after a year in office, with health problems cited as the reason. His downfall disappointed the international community, as he had drawn up a road map to democracy and engaged opposition parties in dialogue.

    Considering Khin Nyunt spent eight years under house arrest after being ousted, Shwe Mann has gotten off lightly. But his fall from power underscores an enduring reality of Myanmar politics: The military continues to hold all the cards.

    Aung San Suu Kyi's reaction has been surprisingly calm, considering she had worked alongside Shwe Mann in their attempt to amend the constitution. In a news conference on Aug. 18, she said she accepted the party's statement that the change was an internal issue. The NLD leader did not rule out future cooperation with Shwe Mann but carefully avoided criticizing the Thein Sein administration and the military.

    It seems even the Nobel Peace Prize laureate feels she is no longer in a position to take on the country's power brokers.

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