Myanmar President Thein Sein has moved to consolidate his power in the country’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) by forcing out his chief rival Shwe Mann as party chairman, months ahead of a November general election.
Shwe Mann was removed from his position as “acting” chairman of the ruling party because he was too busy with his other role as the country’s influential parliamentary speaker, the USDP said in a statement Thursday.
The shakeup follows reports that security forces had surrounded USDP headquarters in the capital Naypyidaw late on Wednesday, preventing some members from leaving, and possibly taking Shwe Mann into custody.
"“While the USDP has described the incident at its headquarters as an internal party matter, we are concerned about the apparent use of state security forces to help resolve the dispute," the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar said in a statement.
According to the USDP statement, Thein Sein has been appointed chairman, but new vice chair Htay Oo will assume the duties due to restrictions on the president’s role in party politics.
The decision was made by the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) in Naypyidaw following an overnight announcement of a reshuffle in the cabinet, the statement said. Party candidates for the elections were also announced internally at Wednesday’s meeting.
President’s Office director Zaw Htay denied reports of a siege by security forces on the USDP headquarters and told RFA’s Myanmar Service the shakeup was the result of recent “in-party demands” from the leadership.
“The USDP party chairman is actually our president, but in accordance with the constitution, he cannot currently be handling party affairs, and so Shwe Mann had been asked to be an interim chairman,” he said.
“But now, the USDP leadership sent a signed petition to the president and thus, he has given the position to the most experienced vice chairman, Htay Oo … We don’t know about Shwe Mann’s role [at this point].”
Zaw Htay said “there might not be many changes” to the USDP’s list of candidates for the country’s Nov. 8 general election, which must be finalized by Friday, adding that the party would “announce details later.”
“It’s a restructuring of a political party and a change of party leadership, and this happens everywhere throughout the world,” he said.
“People do not need to be worried about this.”
Later on Thursday, Maung Maung Htay, a former deputy minister for religious affairs who was brought in as a new CEC member, told a press briefing that Shwe Mann would remain in his current role as parliamentary speaker, according to the Myanmar Times.
“Thura U Shwe Mann still remains a member of the party and [an election] candidate as well. The party chair is U Htay Oo," Maung Maung Htay said.
"U Shwe Mann will serve as speaker of the parliament until the end of the present parliament term.”
The shakeup highlights rare tensions within the ruling USDP, which took power from Myanmar’s former military junta in 2011 to form a quasi-civilian government, though the military still holds an effective veto in the country’s legislature.
Both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann have expressed interest in leading the country following elections, but the parliamentary speaker had ruffled feathers in the USDP with his support for measures that would limit the military’s role in politics.
The infighting was exposed last night amid reports that security forces had surrounded USDP party headquarters late on Wednesday, though ruling party officials rejected those claims Thursday, saying the personnel was regular parliamentary security guards.
An RFA reporter at the scene on Wednesday said two security guard vehicles had entered the complex and Thein Sein left via an exit in the back of the building when the CEC meeting had concluded.
The Associated Press and Reuters news agencies reported, however, that security forces had surrounded the USDP headquarters.
On Thursday, Shwe Mann's son told Agence France-Presse that his father's house in the capital had been surrounded by "so-called guards" following the police swoop on Wednesday.
The Associate Press cited a witness as saying Shwe Mann's home security official was seen being questioned by the chief of police.
The AP quoted Toe Naing Mann as saying that the parliamentary speaker was inside his home with security guards and that "I don't know whether he is allowed to go out or not."
The U.S. Embassy expressed concern Thursday about reports of security forces being used to resolve an internal USDP dispute.
“It is important that the government clarify what actions it has taken and their legal basis,” the embassy said in a statement.
“Maintaining public trust in the democratic process will be critical throughout this election season and ultimately the transition to a new government next April that reflects the will of the people.”
According to the USDP, in addition to Shwe Mann’s removal as party chairman, President's Office Minister Tin Naing Thein was appointed party general secretary as part of the reshuffle, replacing former general secretary Maung Maung Thein.
Additionally, a number of recently retired generals were given posts in the CEC, replacing members seen as loyal to Shwe Mann.
Reported by by Zin Mar Win, Nayrein Kyaw, Thin Thiri and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service and Joshua Lipes. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.