In a dramatic development on the 12 August 2015, Parliamentary Speaker, Shwe Mann was ousted from his position as Chair of the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Security forces surrounded USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw and purged the influential political figure from his position within the party. Information Minister, Ye Htut, stated that his close relationship with National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as support for constitutional change that would reduce the power of the Burma Army was behind his ouster.
Speculation has been rife, particularly in the past 12 months about a deterioration of the relationship, as well as rivalry, between President Thein Sein and Shwe Mann and the pressure on Shwe Mann has been building. A petition circulated last month in Zayarthiri, Naypyidaw, his own constituency, calling for his impeachment for not respecting the military. This is the crux of the issue. The Burma Army is determined to maintain full control of the political party that it created, and anyone who is seen to be in a dalliance with the opposition, or supporting any motion that aims to reduce the power of the Burma Army, will not be tolerated.
Just a few hours before the events at the USDP office, several ministers resigned from their positions, allowing them to join the USDP – the 2008 Constitution decrees that those in ministerial positions cannot be involved in party politics. Eight of these are now members of the USDP’s central committee. The four senior ministers who resigned to take up prominent roles in the USDP, Tin Naing Thein, Than Htay, Khin Ye, and Myat Hein, are all veterans of the previous military junta, some with close ties to previous junta head, Than Shwe. Furthermore, the new chair of the USDP is Htay Oo, a founding member of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the predecessor to the USDP which was behind the Depayin Massacre in 2003, an attack on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in which around 70 NLD supporters were murdered, allegedly by hired thugs, in collaboration with the USDA.
Meanwhile the NLD has come under fire for expelling members who protested against the candidate list presented in Pakokku, Magwe Region. The NLD’s central committee ignored suggestions for candidates from the local-level office and put forward their own choices. Subsequent protests resulted in ten NLD members being expelled from the party, much to the dismay of not just local supporters but from elsewhere in the party, as one anonymous committee member in Rangoon stated, there is “a lack of democracy in the party.”
Indeed, Magwe Region is not a strong point for either of the main political parties, as the USDP, reminiscent of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, attempted to claim responsibility for the donation of humanitarian aid provided by UNICEF for flood victims. With one main party dominated by the Burma Army, and the other lacking democracy, this can only serve to disillusion the public regarding the upcoming election. With a humanitarian crisis still unfolding in many parts of the country, infighting should not be the focus, nor should using the recent flooding catastrophe to gain support and votes.
Hope that the USDP could transform itself from a puppet of the Burma Army were dashed in this brazen display of power consolidation. This goes beyond simply a power struggle within one party. This demonstrates the continuing dominance of the military in political life, a worrying sign just a few weeks before the election. Furthermore, with figures such as Htay Oo, and others seen as close with Than Shwe, or generally regarded as military hardliners now in prime positions of power, it is not a good sign for the situation of human rights in the country. Those dominant in the USDP are not just Thein Sein’s allies, they are the military’s allies. These are people who will not support any constitutional change to reduce the power of the military. The recent parliamentary vote on article 436 (b) that would have reduced the threshold of votes needed in Parliament to change the 2008 Constitution was blocked by the 25% military allocated MPs. It appears that this is the straw that broke the camel’s back for the military, and the time came to wrest complete control of the party back from those who question their power. Shwe Mann was one of these, and he had to go.