Editorial Notes

Military swings iron fist ahead of Myanmar election: The Nation

Myanmar national flag flying together with party flags at the headquarters of the Myanmar ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Naypyitaw Myanmar on Aug 17, 2015.
Myanmar national flag flying together with party flags at the headquarters of the Myanmar ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Naypyitaw Myanmar on Aug 17, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on August 18, 2015, The Nation says that President Thein Sein's bid to consolidate power douses hope of democratic progress

A power struggle in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that led to the ouster of its chief Shwe Mann last week demonstrates that Myanmar's transition to democracy has not reached the highest political circles, where it is the military that still holds sway.

While change at the top of a political party is nothing unusual in itself, Shwe Mann's fate had nothing whatsoever to do with normal political practice.

As troops surrounded the party's headquarters in Nay Pyi Tawon on Wednesday night, it quickly became apparent that an internal military-backed putsch was taking place.

In normal circumstances, a party leader accused of poor strategy or wrongdoing would face a special meeting called by party executives, who would hear his defence before deciding his fate.

No formal accusation was levied against former general Shwe Mann, who was bundled out of his job but has retained the post of speaker of parliament.

By way of explanation the party released a statement saying he was too busy preparing the party for the coming election.

The ouster came a day after 150 senior officers, who had retired from the military to stand in November's general election, had been rejected as USDP candidates. Shwe Mann oversaw the selection process.

Shwe Mann had also built close ties with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and had supported a proposed amendment to the military-drafted constitution that would have reduced the role of the armed forces in politics.

The amendment, which would have also lifted a ban on Suu Kyi running for president, eventually failed to pass the vote in parliament, where the military holds 25 per cent of seats - effectively a power of veto.

It is widely believed that the ouster of Shwe Mann was the work of President Thein Sein, in a bid to consolidate his power and run for a second term. Shwe Mann, who was regarded as his main rival for the position, has been replaced as party chairman by Htay Oo, a long-time ally of Thein Sein.

Shortly before military guards surrounded USDP headquarters on Wednesday night, Thein Sein announced the resignation of several ministers in his administration, enabling them to run for election.

Among them was Tin Naing Thein, who resigned his ministerial position at the President's Office and then replaced Maung Maung Thein as general secretary of the party.

Immigration Minister Khin Yi will serve on the USDP's central committee and chair the foreign affairs committee, while Communications Minister Myat Hein will head the election campaign.

The sacking of Shwe Mann has serious implications for Myanmar's much-vaunted reform process.

Though President Thein Sein is also regarded as a champion of democratic change, the manner in which he consolidated power harks back to the dark days of Myanmar's military regime and does not augur well for the country's future civilian rule.

Rather than cooperating with Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi to reduce the military's role in politics, the president appears to have aligned himself with the top brass and thus reversed progress made towards democratic reform.

Thein Sein's move suggests Myanmar is once again trapped in the cycle of authoritarian military rule that brought misery and violence to its population for decades.

* The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers.