By Phuong Nguyen
Burmese elite politics were historically a realm of intrigue and abrupt changes, in which a high-ranking general could fall from power overnight and traces of his influence would be erased almost instantly. This happened again on August 13, when parliament speaker Shwe Mann – a former general – was removed from his post as chairman of the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
According to news reports, security forces were deployed to the USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw during a pre-election meeting of party leaders to remove Shwe Mann with the nod of President Thein Sein. His ouster carries significant implications for Myanmar’s political landscape ahead of the upcoming general elections in November as well as the calculus of foreign governments toward Myanmar.
Shwe Mann’s attempts in early July to push through constitutional amendments that would have reduced the military’s role in parliament had sidelined him within the traditional military elite. Shwe Mann hoped to win the nomination of his party to be a presidential candidate following the November elections. But his preemptive announcements on several instances of Thein Sein’s plans not to seek a second presidential term – which the president later refuted – have cost him the support of those within the USDP, as well as the bureaucracy, who back Thein Sein.
Among Myanmar’s top political leaders, Shwe Mann has built the best rapport with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is barred from the presidency by the 2008 constitution but whose approval is seen as necessary for the next government’s international legitimacy. It was believed that Aung San Suu Kyi was open to forming a coalition with a future government in which Shwe Mann would serve as president.
Domestically, Shwe Mann’s fall from power threw open the doors for Thein Sein to seek a second term. Thein Sein will not be running as a USDP parliamentary candidate in November, but has been re-appointed as USDP chairman – a position that he gave up after becoming president. Equally important, it leaves Aung San Suu Kyi more vulnerable, as other political players will likely read from the latest machinations that developing a close relationship with her, even one out of necessity or convenience, might spell disaster for their political fortunes.
Shwe Mann’s ouster signals another encroachment of the military into Myanmar’s political life, not long after military-appointed lawmakers flexed their muscles to vote down major constitutional amendments. There have been talks for some time that the military, which engineered Myanmar’s political opening in 2011, will not allow the reform process to go any further than the present state of affairs; it only granted limited political freedom to people in exchange for international legitimacy and foreign investment inflows.
The USDP, it follows, was designed to serve this purpose. Yet under Shwe Mann’s leadership, the Union Parliament has risen to be a robust body that has asserted its voice in some of the most important issues, from budget allocations for government agencies (including for the military) to the maverick peace process. With an increasingly open media, the assertiveness of many USDP lawmakers has only made military appointees, who make up 25 percent of the legislature, look ineffective and out of touch in the public’s eyes.
With Shwe Mann’s influence trimmed, parliament will doubtlessly become less spirited. He will be allowed to retain his lawmaker post and speakership for now, with his presence a constant reminder to those who might be tempted to disregard the military.
At the same time, his fall from power does not necessarily translate into an easier time for the military. If anything, the military has had to contend with growing grassroots challenges to its entrenched position in Myanmar, ranging from student protests to military lawmakers’ rejection of constitutional amendments and a movement by health workers to denounce the appointment of military officers in hospitals and the Health Ministry.
As Thein Sein’s clout expands as a result of Shwe Mann’s fall, the military will also need to reconfigure its relations with the president, especially in the event he will serve another term. While Thein Sein has been careful to implement his reform agenda step by step and reflect the military’s views on the critical issue of constitutional change, he is no puppet. His government has at times acted independently from the military leadership on matters related to the government’s ceasefire talks with ethnic armed groups.
The power struggle within the USDP also carries implications beyond Myanmar’s borders. For some time, Beijing has actively courted Shwe Mann, who visited China as ruling party chairman and met with President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese leaders earlier this year, on the assumption that he was most likely to become the next president.
While Beijing has also courted other players, including Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic political parties, with an eye toward 2016, it had largely written Thein Sein off early in his presidency after he canceled big-ticket Chinese investments in Myanmar and turned to forging relations with the West. Xi and Chinese premier Li Keqiang are said to have skipped Myanmar during their inaugural “charm offensive” tours across Southeast Asia in late 2013 to send a message to Thein Sein. It remains to be seen whether Beijing will be more engaging toward Thein Sein as the balance of power in Naypyidaw has suddenly shifted.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi will now be left to maneuver for herself in a hostile political environment, the United States will be watching closely how other senior leaders will treat her, or whether “The Lady” will decide to change her tact.
She reportedly has a deteriorating relationship with Thein Sein and even poorer relations with the powerful commander-in-chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. While her party, the National League for Democracy, is expected to perform well at the polls, decisions about the makeup of the next government will depend on the deal-making between senior leaders of the military, the USDP, and other large ethnic-based parties. Her approval may be crucial, but the generals know that her very presence in parliament is sufficient for the legitimacy of the next government. Aung San Suu Kyi may be displeased with the next leadership team, but withdrawing from parliament might also spell an end to her political future.
Shwe Mann’s ouster is a mixed blessing. Although he has quickly built up a fledgling activist legislature, many believe that he has done so out of his own political interests and resentment for having been passed over for the presidency in 2011, rather than any deep-rooted support for democracy. The methods used to oust Shwe Mann makes clear that the military is still a wildcard, and will not hesitate to act to ensure that Myanmar remains a “disciplined” democracy for some time to come.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.