Back to the future

The elections are just over two months away, but already there is no shortage of political drama. Last week long-simmering tensions in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party reached boiling point.

On August 12 security forces sealed off the USDP headquarters in Nay Pyi Taw. Hours later it emerged that the party leadership had been reshuffled. Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann was ousted as the party’s chairman and two USDP newspapers regarded as his mouthpieces were silenced.

Thura U Shwe Mann’s allies were allowed to leave their posts by President U Thein Sein, and some members of the party’s central executive committee were “permitted to resign”, according to USDP statements after the dust had settled.

The language reeked of that used during purges in the junta days.

Superficially, the removal of Thura U Shwe Mann appears to be an internal power struggle over the chairmanship of the party in which U Thein Sein has emerged victorious. The head of state is banned by the constitution from simultaneously leading a political party and USDP vice chairman U Htay Oo has now become the party’s official chairman.

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But there is more at play. Thura U Shwe Mann’s main adversary appears to be the Tatmadaw, which he infuriated by allowing debate in parliament of proposals to amend the constitution that would have weakened its grip on power. The unelected military bloc had to use its veto to block the amendments, much to the chagrin of the army leadership, which felt the proposals were an a ront to the dignity of the Tatmadaw.

A second reason for Tatmadaw displeasure with Thura U Shwe Mann was his decision as party chairman to allow only a handful of recently-retired officers to join the party. As long as Thura U Shwe Mann controlled the candidate list, the army was in danger of losing its grip over the party .

The timing of the ouster is also telling. Union Election Commission chairman U Tin Aye delayed the deadline for parties to submit candidate lists, ostensibly because of the widespread floods. But Thura U Shwe Mann’s days as party chairman were already numbered. The extra time granted by U Tin Aye, a former lieutenant-general said to be close to junta strongman and former Senior General Than Shwe, was necessary to fix ‘the problem’.

Appearances were kept up. The USDP headquarters compound was sealed off on August 13 by police, not soldiers. Still, the Myanmar Police Force is under the Ministry of Home Affairs, one of the three key security ministries held by the army.

The UEC’s U Tin Aye was quick to emphasise that the troubles in the USDP would not prevent a free and fair election, which is exactly the lullaby to which the international community likes to fall to sleep. But is he as independent as he likes to portray himself?

It is likely that Thura U Shwe Mann will resurface again soon, with increased credibility. In the meantime it has become all too clear that the transition is a carefully managed process behind the veneer of democracy to allow the ruling elites to hold the nation and its resources in an iron grip.

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