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'Purge' of Speaker throws Myanmar's presidential race into turmoil

'Purge' of Speaker throws Myanmar's presidential race into turmoil
Published 19 Aug 2015 

Last week, the political career of presidential hopeful and current Parliamentary Speaker, U Shwe Mann, took a turn for the worse. On 12 August members of his own political party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), initiated a 'coup', purging him from the leadership but leaving him a member of the party and speaker of parliament. 

Parliamentary speaker U Shwe Mann, 2011. (Flickr/Utenriksdepartmentet UD.)

Unless Shwe Mann can suddenly regain the trust of his former comrades in the USDP and Tatmadaw (Myanmar's armed forces), his political career appears almost over and his hopes of becoming president all but gone.

Shwe Mann's future as an MP and as speaker is uncertain. So far, the USDP's actions have been an internal party decision that only affects Shwe Mann's position in the party, as opposed to his position in parliament. And as the USDP claims its actions were according to the constitution as well as the party's own rules, this limits the avenues Shwe Mann could pursue to challenge his removal. 

After this falling out, the USDP is unlikely to support a Shwe Mann presidential nomination. This increases the likelihood of the party instead nominating current president Thein Sein (who has again become USDP party leader), even if he only plans to hold the position for a short period. It's also unclear whether other USDP officials, such as the new Chairman, U Htay Oo, harbour presidential ambitions. If they do, this will also work against Shwe Mann.

Tatmadaw support for Shwe Mann is also highly unlikely. The fact that security officials were in place at USDP headquarters when Shwe Mann's removal occurred indicates Tatmadaw approval. After all, the Ministries of Home Affairs and Defence are overseen by serving military officers that answer to the Commander in Chief, Min Aung Hlaing. He had to have supported Shwe Mann's removal to allow the police to be deployed. 

This isn't too surprising. Although Shwe Mann was a decorated military officer, military contacts have previously told me he was not always trusted by his Tatmadaw colleagues. And despite early attempts to keep the Tatmadaw onside, numerous reports over the last few months suggest he has done the opposite. [fold]

For example, many have suggested that his seemingly pro-reform stance may have spooked hardliners, or that his recent challenges to the Tatmadaw (notably his support to change its composition in parliament) may have been the last straw. Information Minister U Ye Htut went as far as saying that Shwe Mann's actions over the past year were a reflection of his own political ambitions 'rather than what was best for the party and country'

As Derek Tonkin suggested on Network Myanmar, this move also paves the way for Tatmadaw commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing as a presidential candidate. Past reports have suggested the Tatmadaw is ready to support him, making it in the military's interests to remove Shwe Mann from the equation. 

For Shwe Mann, this just leaves the National League for Democracy (NLD) as a possible source of support. Over the past few years, Shwe Mann has courted Aung San Suu Kyi to build credibility with the NLD and broader pro-democracy movement. The NLD has not yet identified a presidential nominee (with Aung San Suu Kyi still ineligible), so Shwe Mann might see it as his last chance. A private meeting on 17 August between Shwe Mann and Aung San Suu Kyi may be the first step in forming such a partnership, perhaps one that secures Shwe Mann a presidential nomination in exchange for support to Aung San Suu Kyi  in other ways.

But it is hard to see how accepting Shwe Mann could improve the NLD's position, or what the NLD could gain by taking on someone who is now damaged goods. Moreover, given internal dissatisfaction over the selection of electoral candidates, taking on an outsider could fracture the party further, something the NLD doesn't need going into its biggest political contest so far. And without Tatmadaw and USDP support, Shwe Mann is less influential and thus less attractive to an opposition party like the NLD. If anything, such a partnership would benefit Shwe Mann more than the NLD. 

There are also reputational issues associated with Shwe Mann that go beyond this recent incident. As I noted in a previous post:

Before the 2010 elections, several observers predicted Shwe Mann would be appointed president, but he was overlooked for U Thein Sein. This, some speculated, was because Thein Sein was the 'cleanest' of the generals and the best face for the new government. Shwe Mann had reportedly used his position to further his family's private business interests; they of course denied this. Despite Aung San Suu Kyi's apparent acceptance of the Myanmar businessmen formerly known as 'cronies', does the NLD want to support a candidate that the military may not have considered 'clean enough' the first time around?

It's useful to remember that Shwe Mann has not been arrested or charged with any crimes (nor has his family), which was the norm in previous purges. But it no doubt remains a possibility, and the Tatmadaw has used corruption charges to bring down its own (and their families) in the past. 

Prior to his removal, there were reports of a petition to impeach Shwe Mann, which was initiated by the (predominantly military) members of his constituency. The Union Election Commission has also recently urged Shwe Mann to pass the proposed impeachment law, which he had previously dismissed. If it goes ahead, it could be all the USDP and Tatmadaw need for the coup de grace. 

For the foreseeable future, Shwe Mann has few options. He could become a lame duck speaker and quietly serve out his time as an MP, he could lobby for NLD support, or he could try to challenge his party and, in turn, the Tatmadaw. Whatever he decides, Shwe Mann will need to carefully calculate the risks. Aggravating powerful groups further could prove detrimental to his and his family's extensive interests and businesses in Myanmar.

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