It’s hard to fathom that a former Myanmar general who later served as speaker of the lower house of parliament under a military-backed government would say that servicemen should participate in politics in the Southeast Asian nation only after changing into civilian clothes. But Shwe Mann, who formed the Union Betterment Party (UBP) in February 2019, believes just that.
Shwe Mann, whose name is usually proceeded by the honorific “Thura” out of respect for his service in the country’s armed forces, says that military officers who want to become lawmakers should contest in elections like other candidates and not be automatically appointed to seats, as dictated by the country's constitution.
He also says his 500,000-member party will not participate in elections in war-torn Rakhine state to avoid complicated situations there, and that he will no longer have casual meetings with Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The former general positioned himself as one of her allies after he was purged as leader of the military-supported Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) in an August 2015 political shake-up under then-president Thein Sein. Two months later, Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) party defeated the USDP in general elections by a very wide margin.
In an exclusive interview with reporter Wai Mar Tun of RFA’s Myanmar Service, Shwe Mann discusses the differences between his UBP and the main opposition USDP, the upcoming 2020 general elections, and the military’s heavy involvement in politics. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: We’ve learned that in less than a year since the founding of your party, the UBP has grown rapidly and gained more than 500,000 members. What’s driving the growth of your party?
Shwe Mann: The party has grown because the people believe that we can best fulfill their needs. Besides, I think the people may perceive that we will do well in the elections and have the best chances of winning it. We will garner more than 500,000 votes in the elections, [and] we hope to win as much as 40-50 percent of the electoral districts we contest.
RFA: How is your party different from the USDP, which was also formed by former military generals?
Shwe Mann: The main difference is that the USDP was founded by the government. Our Union Betterment Party was founded by myself based on the people’s [support], so our party represents the people rather than the government.
RFA: We know that your party has opened offices across the country except in Rakhine state. How many are there now?
Shwe Mann: So far we have opened 240 township-level party offices. If we include the ward- and village-level party offices, we exceed 5,000 party offices.
RFA: Why won’t you open any offices in Rakhine state? Is it because you assume that the upcoming elections cannot be held there because of the current armed conflict?
Shwe Mann: We don’t hold that assumption. The situation in Rakhine state is very complicated. Instead of getting stuck in that complication, we prefer to take the supporting role and find solutions to help resolve the problems. That’s why we don’t have a party presence in Rakhine state.
RFA: Have you decided to run in the 2020 elections?
Shwe Mann: I am considering whether or not to contest and in which electoral district I will run. We will make an announcement when the time is right. Preferably, it could be a place in Bago region because I am a native of the region. Because Bago is on the road from Yangon to Naypyidaw, it is easily accessible. I have visited [Bago] extensively and met with more local people in towns and villages in Bago than in any other region.
RFA: The military is still heavily involved in politics because the 2008 constitution guarantees officers a quarter of parliamentary seats by appointment as well as other political powers. But you believe that it would be ideal for military officers to stop being servicemen if they want to enter politics. Why?
Shwe Mann: Both in terms of political and democratic standards, such a practice is not desirable or acceptable. If military officers want to get involved in politics, they should do it by means of party politics [through elections]. Otherwise, if our practices are not genuine, we will be blamed by the people of Myanmar, the international community, and international organizations.
RFA: Is the 2008 constitution a roadblock for democratic reform? What changes should be made?
Shwe Mann: The 2008 constitution made way for vibrant political parties and the government [that exists] today. Just saying that the 2008 constitution is a roadblock for democratic reform is not enough. Instead, I want to say that the 2008 constitution is more like a challenge to be tackled for Myanmar’s democratic reform. Constitutional reform is critical for Myanmar. I am concerned that acts like promoting oneself as a savior for constitution reform and indirectly blaming or attacking others like enemies for not achieving it will cause big problems with sustaining the reforms.
RFA: Some say that your relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi is not as strong now as it was before you founded your own party. Are they right?
Shwe Mann: It became apparent that after I gave priority to my own political goals, I no longer had the same type of relations or communications as I had with her before.
RFA: Have you had any meetings or political negotiations with her recently?
Shwe Mann: No, I have not.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.