On 13th August, 2015, Mr. Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Myanmar parliament was ousted from his role as the Chairman of the reigning Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP). Reports indicate that this was an outcome of the power struggle between Mr. Shwe Mann and President Thein Sein. Mr. Shwe Mann’s increasing political popularity in Myanmar and his close ties with the opposition leader were seen as grounds for his ouster. As soon as the news broke out, international media started drawing parallels with similar dismissals in the past, ordered by former military leaders Ne Win and ThanShwe. While the increased internal dispute within USDP has increased Ms. Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy’s (NLD) chances of winning the November, 2015 elections, it also signals a revival of the conservative forces within Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) establishment.Removal of a prominent political figure from his party responsibility by the President is not a good sign for a country that is on the cusp of its first elections since the democratic reforms began in 2011. As Myanmar stands at this important juncture, it becomes pertinent to understand Tatmadaw’s role in the domestic politics of Myanmar in order to foresee the future course of democracy in the country.

 

Military, Democracy and State Building in Myanmar

 

Myanmar has been under the control of Tatmadawsince 1962 when General Ne Win orchestrated a coup to overthrow the civilian regime.The democratic transition that took place in 2011 was orchestrated by Tatmadaw, under the roadmap to “disciplined democracy”, envisioned by the former head of Tatmadaw, General ThanShwe.The roadmap envisaged installing a new political system in seven steps after ensuring that the interests of the military are safeguarded by creating a suitable social and political order. This behaviour is explained by Sundhaussen and Finer, who claim that militaries relinquish power once the motivation and societal conditions that prompted their intervention were reversed and a reliable civilian successor is found. In Myanmar as well, after suppressing the pro-democracy protests in 1988, Tatmadaw focused its energies on sapping the political and economic strength of opposition parties and separatist groups, thereby forcing them to work with the Tatmadaw in the state building process.[1]

 

The much criticised constitutional referendum of 2008, which gave veto power to Tatmadaw in Parliament, was followed by elections in 2010 and transfer of power to civilian regime in 2011. This was seen as the final steps in the roadmap to achieving “Disciplined Democracy” envisioned by Than Shwe. It appears however that having veto powers wasn’t a guaranty enough to protect their interests. Tatmadaw went on to create a political party (USDP) to fight the elections in 2010. In order to eliminate competition from NLD, Tatmadaw instituted an electoral law that barred any individual whose spouse or children held citizenship of other country from standing for elections. Needless to say this was targeted at Ms. Suu Kyi herself.Thus, the chief purpose of Tatmadaw’s state building measure was to not just strengthen the regime, but also to ensure that Tatmadaw enjoys a more indispensible position in the national government, even if the USDP fails to win future elections.

 

Tatmadaw and Compulsions of Electoral Politics

 

After coming to power in 2011, Thein Sein government instituted several reforms much to the surprise of international community. This included legalising political protests and trade unions, lifting restrictions on media and releasing political prisoners.[2]President Thein Sein also stalled major Chinese projects in Myanmar which were facing large scale opposition from the local population. Although this was a bold move considering that China was biggest source of Foreign Direct Investment for Myanmar and it was President Thein Sein himself who in his earlier capacity as Prime Minister prior to 2011 had sanctioned these Chinese projects. This move not only helped him gain popularity at home, but internationally it was felt that President Thein Sein is keen on establishing strong ties with the West.

 

This change in Myanmar’s investment policy forced Chinese companies to renegotiate their profit sharing agreements. The new agreements which were subsequently signed saw reduced profits for the Tatmadaw owned businesses, thereby raising questions over Tatmadaw’s bargaining power in the new regime.[3]In an unprecedented move President Thein Sein also made Tatmadaw’s chief nemesis, Ms. Suu Kyi in-charge of an investigative committee to assess environmental and social damage caused by Chinese ownedLetpadaung Copper Mines. The extent of these reforms made the academia wonder if President Thein Sein had gone above and beyond what was initially envisaged by the architect of Myanmar’s democratisation process.

 

Thein Sein’s Shwe Mann Problem

 

In May, 2015, following a three day Executive Committee meeting of the USDP, it was announced that Mr. Shwe Mann will head the party’s Election Winning Committee. However, the party did not make any announcement on whether they intend to support Mr. Shwe Mann’s candidature for the Presidential elections. While the reason for this is quite simply because Myanmar’s constitution prevents the president and union ministers from getting involved in party activities, the party’s silence on Mr. Shwe Mann’s candidature warrants attention. On the contrary, Mr. Thein Swe, the General Secretary of USDP indicated that the incumbent President might receive party support if he seeks re-election.[4]

 

Mr. Shwe Mann had made his intention of running for President clear earlier this year. However, the support Mr. Shwe Mann enjoyed within the party itself can be questioned, considering that President Thein Sein was handpicked by General ThanShwe himself to lead USDP. Moreover, Mr. Shwe Mann’s admission of willingness to form a coalition government with the NLD in order to reduce Tatmadaw’s influence over the politics in Myanmar might have irked the conservatives within the military establishment.[5]Mr. Shwe Mann sought to reduce the military’s power in the parliament before the general elections. Since the USDP was more or less united toward this objective, he did not face any major opposition. However, among many constitutional amendments Mr. ShweMann introduced in the Parliament on the 25th of June, a few inhibited President Thein Sein and other senior government officials from campaigning as members of the USDP. While the amendment itself didn’t get enough votes in the parliament, it helped mobilise support for President Thein Sein’s re-election within the party. Mr. U ZawHtay, the Director of President’s Office called Mr. ShweMann a temporary chair, who will have to vacate his position if the President decides to stand for re-election.[6] Thus, his ouster seems more like President Thein Sein’s attempt to consolidate his power and support within the party.

 

Conclusion

 

The purge of Shwe Mann has given USDP a more definite direction, running up to the November elections. Holding the post of Chairman and Speaker of the lower house of the Parliament gave Mr. Shwe Mann enough influence within USDP to create two poles of power. It gave him enough room to manoeuvre within the parliament in order to promote his candidacy and cramp President Thein Sein’s election campaign. By relieving him from his party position, USDP might be seeking to put his personal ambitions to rest. This way, USDP might have hoped that he uses his position in the Parliament solely for furthering the party’s goals and ensuring that NLD does not pose a significant threat in the upcoming elections.

 

However, things have not gone the way USDP and the President anticipated. Ms. Suu Kyi is now provided with an opportunity to strengthen NLD’s chances of winning the elections. Barely a week after he was ousted, Ms. Suu Kyi hailed the Speaker of the Parliament an ally and showed willingness to work with him going up to the election.[7] While the nature of this relationship is anyone’s guess, it has led to speculations about a secret power sharing agreement between the NLD and Mr. Shwe Mann, where the former would back Mr. Mann’s candidacy for presidency provided the speaker helps amending the constitution allowing Ms. Suu Kyi to stand for elections in the future.[8]

 

The question to ask here is how Tatmadaw would react if NLD does come to power? If one were to follow Regime Maintenance theory, Tatmadaw would have no reason to topple the civilian regime as long as its interests are secure. In this case, it would include chiefly any attempt to dilute the military’s veto over the amendments passed in the parliament. In the past, Tatmadaw had taken steps to co-opt the opposition and other minority ethnic groups into the new political establishment. However, USDP’s loss in the upcoming election might lead to a possible loss of influence for the Tatmadaw in parliament. Only time will tell how Tatmadaw reacts to this political setback.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal

 


[1] Lee Jones, “Explaining Myanmar’s Regime Transition: the periphery is central”, (London: Queen Marry University, 2014),http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2013.863878, accessed on June 3, 2015

 

[2] Larry Jagan, “Thein Sein shuffles to restart reform”, Asia Times, August 30, 2012, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/NH30Ae03.html, accessed on 1 August, 2015

 

[3] Yun Sun, “Chinese Investment in Myanmar: What Lies Ahead?”, (Washington DC: Stimson, 2013), http://www.stimson.org/images/uploads/Yun_Issue_Brief1.pdf, p. 6, accessed on June 12, 2015

 

[4] Nobel Zaw, “Shew Mann to Lead USDP Through Elections”, The Irrawady, June 1, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/election/news/shwe-mann-to-lead-usdp-through-elections, accessed on August1, 2015

 

[5] David Brunnstorm, “Myanmar ruling party chief to to stand as president if called”, Reuters, May 1, 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/05/01/uk-myanmar-election-idUKKBN0NM4EY20150501, accessed on August 3, 2015

 

[6]EiEi Toe Lwin and Htoo Thant, “Struggle for control of USDP enters Parliament”, Myanmar Times, July 1, 2015, http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/15283-struggle-for-control-of-usdp-enters-parliament.html, accessed on August 1, 2015

 

[7] “Aung San Suu Kyi hails Shwe Mann as an ‘ally’”, BBC, August 18, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33974550, accessed on August 2, 2015

 

[8] Lynn Kuok, “Purge of Shwe Mann not death knell for democracy in Myanmar”, (Washington DC: Brookings, 2015), http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2015/08/myanmar-thura-shwe-mann-purge-kuok