Ousted Myanmar leader back in political spotlight

Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann (centre) greeting supporters as he campaigned in his constituency in Phyu earlier this month.
Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann (centre) greeting supporters as he campaigned in his constituency in Phyu earlier this month.PHOTO: REUTERS

Election campaign by Shwe Mann likely a precursor of presidential bid

PHYU (Myanmar) • Ousted Myanmar ruling party chief Shwe Mann is mounting a comeback ahead of a historic election next month, setting the stage for a likely presidential bid that will add to the unpredictability of the country's transition to democracy.

Hundreds of campaign workers are blitzing Mr Shwe Mann's home district in an attempt to maintain the taciturn former general's foothold in Parliament. If he succeeds, some analysts predict a split that could help opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).

"There is nobody like him," croons a male vocalist as campaign trucks in the town of Phyu blare a rock ballad lauding the area's most famous son. "He is the one the people should choose for democratisation."

The campaign is underpinned by nearly US$2 million (S$2.8 million) spent on local development projects by businessmen linked to the country's old junta, according to interviews and a document obtained by Reuters.

Just two months ago, Mr Shwe Mann - once a presidential favourite - looked set for political oblivion.

In scenes reminiscent of Myanmar's half-century of military rule, armed police had stormed the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), removing him as its leader in a purge orchestrated by President Thein Sein.

Now, two senior Shwe Mann allies say if he wins in Phyu, his next step will be a tilt at the presidency, which is set to be chosen by the newly elected MPs next year.

"We hope our party members and the other parties will join and nominate him as the presidential candidate," Mr Win Oo, a pro-Shwe Mann USDP lawmaker, told Reuters.

Mr Shwe Mann's supporters tout him as the ideal consensus candidate for a fragile country. A former soldier awarded the honorary title "Thura" for his battlefield exploits, he was widely considered the military regime's No. 3 prior to the advent of semi-civilian rule in 2011.

But as Lower House Speaker, Mr Shwe Mann cultivated ties with Ms Suu Kyi, whose party is expected to win the most seats in the Nov 8 election. It was this that led to his ouster.

Independent political analyst Sithu Aung Myint said if Mr Shwe Mann returns to Parliament, he will almost certainly end up leading a renegade faction within the USDP, creating a split that could help an NLD candidate win the presidency. Ms Suu Kyi herself is barred from the job by the country's military-drafted Constitution.

At a recent news briefing, Mr Shwe Mann replied obliquely when asked if he aspired to the presidency. "Time will tell," he said. "For the benefit of the nation, I will negotiate or cooperate with any person or party."

In Phyu, a recent Shwe Mann campaign meeting was held in an assembly hall that opened in June and bears a plaque with his name. It cost about US$420,000, raised mostly from more than half a dozen businessmen who prospered under military rule. A hospital was built with roughly US$1.3 million secured by Mr Shwe Mann from the Max Myanmar Group of US-sanctioned businessman Zaw Zaw, said Mr Tun Aung, a member of the hospital's board. Max Myanmar did not respond to a request for comment.

"We owe thanks to him," Mr Tun Aung said. "Now it's time to pay back our gratitude."

Ms Suu Kyi has not visited Phyu, despite touring much of the country to warm receptions, leading several NLD supporters interviewed by Reuters to grumble that she appeared to be letting Mr Shwe Mann win.

At an NLD campaign stop in one hamlet, farmer Tun Myint, 48, said he wanted Ms Suu Kyi for president. "But if it's not going to be her, Shwe Mann is the most suitable guy to change the country," he said. "It's time to prioritise what can be, rather than what we want."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2015, with the headline 'Ousted Myanmar leader back in political spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe