By Aung Din
Editor’s Update: On August 12, 2015, Shwe Mann was ousted as party chief, though he remains speaker of the parliament. Security forces surrounded the USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw ahead of the decision, leading many to describe Shwe Mann’s ouster as a coup by those in the party loyal to Thein Sein.
Myanmar is about to enter the second phase of political decentralization, which started in 2011 with the transfer of power from the military regime to the pseudo-civilian government, the parliament and the Supreme Court, formed on the basis of the 2008 constitution and the results of the 2010 elections. The upcoming elections, scheduled for November 8, will determine who will lead the country over the next five years together with the powerful military commander-in-chief.
Competition within the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to determine who has the inside track to be the next president has intensified in recent months. Three candidates have emerged: Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of parliament and USDP party chief, President Thein Sein, and Khin Aung Myint, the speaker of the upper house.
Fundamentally, the USDP is the party of the military. However, since Shwe Mann took over as chairman of the USDP and as speaker of the Union Parliament in 2013, relations between the USDP and the military have soured. As USDP members of parliament have tried to move the party away from the shadow of the military, they have initiated some popular actions, such as investigating land confiscation by the government and the military. However, the irony is that much of this land was confiscated by these same USDP parliamentarians when they were high ranking generals in the previous military regime, not by the current generals. Thus some of the moves by the USDP have angered the military and the president’s office.
As recently as two months ago, Shwe Mann was seen as the likely future president of Myanmar. To make his position unassailable, the speaker courted opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi aggressively and appointed her chair of a parliamentary committee although her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) holds only eight percent of the seats. Since Aung San Suu Kyi is ineligible for the presidency according to the constitution, Shwe Mann expected that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party might support him instead.
In his efforts to prove his worth to Aung San Suu Kyi, Shwe Mann alienated some of his core supporters in the USDP and further antagonized the military. He tried to fulfill one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s key demands by orchestrating the parliamentary approval in November 2014 of a proposal calling for the president and commander-in-chief to initiate a six-person summit, including Shwe Mann, Khin Aung Myint, Aung San Suu Kyi and an ethnic representative, Dr. Aye Maung from the Rakhine National Development Party, to talk about amending the constitution. This pressure pushed President Thein Sein and military commander Min Aung Hlaing into a corner.
Shwe Mann also allowed his allies in the USDP to submit two draft bills to amend the constitution in June 2015, after President Thein Sein had asked the parliament to wait to amend the constitution until nationwide peace talks with the armed ethnic groups were completed. At the same time, Min Aung Hlaing requested that the parliament, through members loyal to him, create specific laws to share more powers, more resources, and more revenue with the ethnic states, instead of making amendments in the constitution now.
In the end, both of Shwe Mann’s efforts failed. The six-person summit was realized only once in May 2015, without an outcome, although the leaders agreed to convene again in the future. These meetings have yet to happen. The proposals to amend the constitution failed to overcome the veto power of the military representatives and achieved little, but tensions between Shwe Mann and Thein Sein intensified and military representatives were put in a very uncomfortable situation because they had to vote against the proposed amendments publicly, a move which they recognized would be unpopular.
The fall of Shwe Mann seems inevitable and as the election approaches, people want to know whether President Thein Sein will seek a second term. He has given different answers at different places. Sometimes, he has said he wants to retire due to his poor health. On other occasions, he said he will serve a second term if that it is what the people want. If Thein Sein wants to be the president again, he needs to be nominated by a group of the electoral college, either elected representatives from the lower house, the upper house, or the military.
As Shwe Mann is trying to put himself forward as the presidential candidate of the USDP, Thein Sein may not have chance to be nominated in either house by the USDP. In that case, he only has one group to rely on, which is the parliamentarians from the military. Even if he contests the election with the USDP, to be nominated for the presidency by the USDP for a second term is not a sure thing. If Thein Sein chooses to contest in the election from another party, the chance of a new party winning many seats in parliament is very thin.
The rising star in Myanmar politics today is Khin Aung Myint, chairman of the upper house, who arguably has the potential to unify the USDP and the military. Two years ago, Khin Aung Myint said that he would not contest in the next election because he wanted to retire and concentrate on religious activities. Now, he has changed his mind and is ready to contest for reelection.
The upper house under Khin Aung Myint’s leadership is much more open, transparent and freer than the lower house under Shwe Mann. Khin Aung Myint invites influential speakers to initiate debates on various subjects with his representatives. He founded a committee of intellectuals to advise him and the upper house on the country’s affairs and law making. He listens to foreign experts and civil society representatives. He allows the members of parliament in the upper house to hold public hearings on draft bills and give civil society organizations and the public an opportunity to express their views.
Khin Aung Myint has tried not to get involved in the disputes between Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, but when the situation has turned ugly, he has stood by the president and the military. He also has established a good relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, who likes his openness and instructed her supporters, who were trying to produce a movie about her late father General Aung San to get advice and approval from Khin Aung Myint about the draft script they had written.
Khin Aung Myint is also an influential leader in the USDP. That’s why he may be the unifier of the USDP and the military.
Some analysts expect that the USDP might win between 15 and 25 percent of the seats in the two houses in the elections. That may prompt the military to weigh in on the side of the USDP. If the USDP and the military can garner 40 percent of the seats as a coalition and if they can muster 11 percent from some ethnic and allied parties, they might secure the 51 percent threshold to retain the presidency and control of the two houses of parliament. Then the military will have the power to push for the removal of Shwe Mann from the USDP chairmanship and replace him with Khin Aung Myint, who both the USDP and the military trust. This scenario would be the best chance for Khin Aung Myint to snare the presidency, and for the USDP to retain power.
Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently living in the United States. He is now serving as Consultant for the Moemaka Multimedia, based in San Francisco, and Adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a nonprofit organization based in Yangon with the vision of promoting the right to information and education – an imperative to get each and every citizen engaged in Myanmar’s transition towards the future where peace prevails and democracy prospers. Please see more information about OMI here.