Purge of Shwe Mann not death knell for democracy in Myanmar

The recent ouster of the leader of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) just three months ahead of Myanmar’s November 2015 general election has disturbing echoes of the country’s days of military rule when purges of top officials were common. According to media reports, security forces surrounded the party’s headquarters as Thura Shwe Mann was removed from his role as party chairman and replaced with the deputy head of party, a close ally of President Thein Sein. The coup de grâce was particularly stunning as, up till that point, Shwe Mann, who is also speaker of the lower house of parliament, was widely considered the frontrunner for the country’s presidency.

Reasons behind the purge

Reports have cited a power struggle between Shwe Mann and President Thein Sein. Shwe Mann has expressed clear ambitions to be president; President Thein Sein has not ruled out a second term. Although the president is not running in November’s parliamentary elections, under the constitution, the presidential electoral college made up of elected members of the upper house, elected members of the lower house and military appointees of both houses can elect non-parliamentarians as president.

However, the ouster had less to do with a personal power struggle, though there was no love lost between Shwe Mann and the president.

Rather, the main reason for the purge was arguably the military’s desire to protect and preserve its position in the country. It was undertaken to reassert the military’s control over the USDP. In other words, while the president did the firing (he apparently still formally holds on to his title of USDP chairman though Shwe Mann performed its functions), it was the military calling the shots. Sources say that the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, with the green light from former hardline military ruler Senior General Than Shwe, pushed the president to remove Shwe Mann.

This reading of military intervention is supported by the ouster’s catalyst being the selection of USDP party candidates for the general elections: Shwe Mann had rejected the candidature of two-thirds of the retired senior officers the military had proposed. According to a source, Shwe Mann had also denied powerful cabinet ministers like U Soe Thane, former navy chief, and U Aung Min, a retired major general of the army spearheading peace negotiation efforts with ethnic armed groups, their requests to run in the constituencies they requested.

The purge also came in the wake of Shwe Mann allowing a vote in June 2015 on proposed constitutional changes, most notably, to reduce the power of the military in parliament and to lift a bar on those with foreign family members becoming president—a change that would have directly benefited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose deceased spouse was British and whose children are British nationals. Several sources have suggested the existence of a secret power-sharing deal between Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann whereby the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) leader would back the speaker for president in return for him amending the constitution. Aung San Suu Kyi is anathema to the military as she has repeatedly pushed for a reduced military role in parliament and wider society.

Another constitutional change put forward by Shwe Mann that directly threatened the military was that only elected parliamentarians could qualify as presidential nominees. If this amendment had passed, any armed forces’ nominee, including the commander-in-chief, would have had to contest elections and win a seat, likely under the USDP umbrella. This would give the party a degree of control over the military’s presidential nominee.

Clearly ascertaining the main reason behind the ouster is important as it has implications for the shape and form of democracy in Myanmar. A political tussle is not inconsequential, but has less deep-reaching effects. In contrast, a military-directed purge could spell an end to democracy or at least send a strong message, guidelines if you will, on what the military will or will not stand for, at least in the near-term.

Some have argued that there is a “democracy cap” (my term not theirs) and that this limit has been reached and the military will no longer countenance further reforms.

However, the situation is arguably less dire than that, if it does not spiral out of control. The military is arguably not against “democracy” per se (whatever this might mean to them). The wider context must be kept in mind: the military has acquiesced in if not backed democratic reforms thus far. Indeed, the commander-in-chief indicated at the 69th Armed Forces Day in March 2014 that the military’s role would gradually be reduced as the country matures in democracy.

What the armed forces appears to be against is a democracy that runs counter to what it perceives as the country’s national interests. Preserving the armed forces’ continued influence in parliament would be one such interest since the military regards itself as the country’s guardian, often conflating interests of self with interests of the nation.

Thus, the recent purge may be said to stem from concerns that Shwe Mann, to achieve personal ambitions, was undercutting the armed forces and, arguably, its ability to protect national interests. Coming from someone who was formerly third in the military’s chain of command, the sense of misconduct and betrayal was all the greater. Sources say that Shwe Mann had in fact promised the generals not to amend (or attempt amending) the constitution, at least in the first term, and his recent actions broke his word.

That the military felt threatened by the vote to amend the constitution, notwithstanding the guaranteed 25 per cent seats it holds in parliament, could point to insecurities on whether military appointees would vote as a bloc to veto the proposal. These insecurities were likely heightened by Shwe Mann’s subsequent circumscription of military candidates on the USDP party list. The military was no doubt also humiliated by public attempts to reduce its role in parliament. Soon after the constitutional amendment vote, soldiers and their families of Shwe Mann’s constituency in Naypyidaw brought a petition for the speaker to be recalled from parliament, a right granted in Myanmar’s constitution. They alleged that he had broken laws during proceedings to amend the constitution and had created “misunderstandings” between the public and the armed forces.

Implications for the future

The immediate political implications of the purge are that Aung San Suu Kyi is left with a much weakened ally and no clear path to the presidency, though her party sought to put on a brave face by labeling recent events a USDP “internal problem.” It will also likely mean worsening relations between Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein and, more broadly, between the NLD and the government.

Shwe Mann, at the time of writing, remains a member of parliament, but even this position appears shaky. The military is said to be pressuring the election commission to get the speaker to pass an enabling law for recalling a sitting parliamentarian giving the commission powers to act. Without this, the recall petition against Shwe Mann has no legs to stand on.

All is not necessarily lost for the union speaker: Aung San Suu Kyi could still choose to bring Shwe Mann into the NLD leadership—something that will greatly divide her party—or select him as the presidential candidate if the NLD wins a majority in either the upper or lower house. The quid pro quo might then be a senior cabinet role for Suu Kyi.

It is unclear how the purge is likely to impact support for the USDP in the November 2015 elections. Conceivably, military interference in USDP party leadership matters and the heavy-handed means by which the ouster was achieved might reinforce notions that the USDP is indistinguishable from the military and weaken support for the party, despite the generally positive direction it has taken the country in since 2011. On the other hand, if the public simply considers the matter one of internal party politics, it could potentially have less of a detrimental impact on its support. The NLD is also facing infighting, but over state and regional candidate lists.

Short-term political implications aside, the purge reminds us that, for better or for worse, the armed forces’ overriding goals must be kept in mind in determining how best to pursue and consolidate democratic reforms in Myanmar. This is something the NLD must also keep in mind if it is able to form the government. There may be some things the military may never tolerate (such as insubordination particularly by a former protégé and, arguably, a Suu Kyi presidency for the reasons highlighted above). By and large, however, what the military considers acceptable or, conversely, out-of-bounds is likely to change depending on context and even its own political maturity as democratic opening bears fruit. At present, sensitivities are high with national elections less than three months away.

Myanmar has made remarkable strides towards democracy. These steps are currently hesitant and faltering, but a long view must be taken. The experience of countries in the region and elsewhere is that the road to democracy is often rocky. Those working for democratic reform in Myanmar will have to continue pushing boundaries at opportune times. Friends, including the United States, must support their efforts.