August 13 dawned in Myanmar with the news that Shwe Mann – chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Speaker of Myanmar’s Parliament – had been unexpectedly removed from his party leadership position. Though the deployment of 200 security forces to ensure a smooth transition evoked bad memories from Myanmar’s years under the junta, early indications that this was a return to rule by military fiat did not quite play out: gags on media affiliated with Shwe Mann’s family were lifted; Shwe Mann retains party membership and some ability to influence politics through his role as speaker; and his family members and business contacts have not been targeted. Though not a death blow for Myanmar’s democratic development, the unexpected change in USDP leadership and the military’s involvement in that change have profound implications for the upcoming elections and the country’s near-term progress towards a more democratic system of governance.
Despite President Thein Sein’s leadership of Myanmar’s 2011 transition to a nominally-civilian government and reformist credentials, 2014 and 2015 have included widely criticized arrests of journalists and crackdowns on protestors, including students. Many observers felt that Thein Sein had expended his political capital in the early movement towards democracy, and that whatever Thein Sein’s own interests, his need to balance between public desires and the concerns of hardliners within the USDP and the Tatmadaw in order to maintain power has been an obstacle to further progress. In this context, Shwe Mann picked up the reformist banner.
While Shwe Mann’s decisions were undoubtedly impacted by his interest in building a broad coalition that would support his presidential ambitions, they also paved the way for a more democratic system of governance. Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s election in the 2012 by-elections, he has cultivated a friendly working relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, sparking rumors that the opposition NLD might support him as a presidential candidate given the ban against Suu Kyi’s leadership. He was similarly well-liked by representatives of the other 18 parties in parliament. Most importantly, he allowed the parliament to vote on controversial amendments that would limit the military’s role in politics.
These same qualities were at the heart of the divide that led to his ousting from the USDP leadership and the reorganization of the party to place hardliners in key party positions. The military has insisted since the transition that it will step down only when the time is right: Commander Min Aung Hlaing has said on numerous occasions that it was too early for the military to consider leaving politics, and that the military will step down “at an appropriate time”. Heartfelt or not, Shwe Mann’s support for amendments that would decrease the military’s influence crossed a red line for hardliners: presidential spokesperson Ye Htut indicated that Shwe Mann’s willingness to turn from the interests of the military and USDP elites was the primary reason for Shwe Mann’s ouster, and interviews with party members indicated that the Shwe Mann’s friendship with Aung San Suu Kyi and willingness to amend the constitution were of serious concern for many, particularly party hardliners and the military leadership.
The military’s direct involvement in Shwe Mann’s ouster recalls the Tatmadaw’s historical interference when elections did not go as expected and confirms that the military will continue to play an active role in setting the agenda of the USDP.
By purging Shwe Mann and his allies from the USDP leadership, the military may have pre-emptively avoided any serious threat to the 2008 constitution within the next five years: given the proliferation of ethnic parties active nationwide and disconnection between the NLD’s central leadership and local-level communities over candidates, it is not guaranteed that the NLD will win the overwhelming majority of the seats as Suu Kyi hopes even if they win the plurality. The NLD will most likely not have the power to push forward with constitutional amendments or other changes without some support from the USDP, the ethnic parties, and even some of the military officers.
The path to democracy is a messy one, marred by fits and starts of progress balanced by occasional reversals. Shwe Mann’s displacement is a step backwards, but must be viewed as part of Myanmar’s longer process of democratization as a country that is still defining its national identity and seeking ways to promote unity in a population that has been riven by civil war, includes many diverse ethnic groups, and still has an elite military class that is suspicious of fast change.
Though Thein Sein’s reorganization of the USDP will limit the speed and extent of reform, Shwe Mann’s ouster is not a sign that the democratic process in Myanmar has failed. Since the start of the transition, the military has made it clear that national interests-as defined by the military-must be protected. The party reorganization was a step toward ensuring that the USDP continued to do so, and brought these hard lines out into the open for other political parties to consider. The Commander in Chief has since said that the military will respect the outcome of the election, even if the NLD wins. It will be a challenge to balance between public desires for further change and the military’s sensitivities, but it will be vital that Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders do so if they want to maintain power and enact real change, even if at a slower rate than desired. If the opposition parties take this warning and respect political realities, Aung Min Hlaing’s promise of non-intervention will likely be true.
Photo credit: European External Action Service via Flickr.