USDP’s night of the long knives deferred

Infighting threatens the ruling party. Will the factions remain united until the election?

Tensions among rival factions in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party continue to fuel speculation about the possibility of a rupture in its ranks.

Increasingly acrimonious relations between President U Thein Sein, and his successor as USDP chairman, parliamentary speaker Thura U Shwe Mann, have sharply exacerbated rifts within the party.

As a result the party has recently been on the cusp of fracturing beyond repair.

It has been a two-headed dragon – with U Thein Sein and Thura U Shwe Mann – vying with each other for control of the USDP and government policy. A showdown was expected this month at the party’s congress but it has been postponed until after the elections or even next year, said USDP MP U Thura Aung Ko. The postponement has averted a showdown for the time being.

“It will be the night of the long knives,” said a source in the President’s Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The party’s liberal wing had hoped to use the congress to clean out the corrupt old guard. This simmering battle remains unresolved. At the root of it, remains the question of who will be the party’s presidential nominee.

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The USDP is fractured beyond repair. The key faction is gathered around U Thein Sein and its members are supporters of the reform agenda. U Thein Sein’s other main support base is the state and regional parliaments, especially most of the chief ministers.

The faction also includes most ministers in the Union government, many of whom intend to run again for parliament on November 8. A year ago, some ministers were saying privately they were sick of politics and intended to retire at the end of their terms. Behind the scenes lobbying has “encouraged” them to change their minds.

On the other side is Thura U Shwe Mann. He is backed by hardliners and business nationalists, including U Aung Thaung (who was medically evacuated to Singapore on July 9 after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage), U Maung Maung, U Soe Tha, U Thein Zaw, U Zaw Min, and a few others.

All are senior executives in the USDP. But the party chairman’s main support base is USDP MPs, who are indebted to him.

“We support Shwe Mann,” said U Shwe Maung, a ruling party MP in the Pyithu Hluttaw. “Under Shwe Mann’s leadership, parliament carries the peoples’ voice,” he said. “He is open and frank, and says either he can or can’t; Thein Sein in comparison is hesitant and indecisive.”

The USDP central committee agreed at its meeting last month to propose Thura U Shwe Mann as the party’s presidential candidate but decided to keep the decision confidential until after the general election to prevent an open battle too early.

There is also a third force within the USDP which feels that U Thein Sein, as well as being indecisive, lacks the moral courage to tackle problems such as corruption. This group fears the prospect of Thura U Shwe Mann becoming president because it regards him and his cabal as the most corrupt in Myanmar.

At present, this group is relatively amorphous and is working behind the scenes. “It’s too early to come out and be exposed,” said the key person in the group, the de facto leader of which is U Khin Aung Myint, the Amyotha Hluttaw speaker.

The group’s other supporters include USDP vice-chairman U Htay Oo, who was once a strong supporter of U Thein Sein but seems to have deliberately distanced himself from the President recently and has positioned himself in the centre of the party. U Soe Maung is by far the most active of this group – it has been suggested by some he is orchestrating a putsch within the USDP.

The recent reports about U Thein Sein’s future – Reuters and the BBC reported that he will not run for parliament and that he does not aspire a second term, which was later denied by the President’s Office –  may in part be a consequence of the warning, but it is too early to offer any insights into the likely outcome of the forthcoming presidential race.

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