A reshuffle of the top ranks of Myanmar’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) smacks of a junta-era purge, analysts said Thursday, adding that the move is likely to shake public confidence in democratic change.
President Thein Sein on Thursday moved to consolidate his power in the USDP by forcing out his chief rival Shwe Mann as party chairman, three 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.
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.
Reports of the restructure drew criticism from veteran journalist and political commentator Moe Thu, who said the move threatened to derail democratic reform in Myanmar.
“Although the USDP says it is marching towards democracy, it cannot even practice democracy within its party ranks,” Moe Thu told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“These changes were made undemocratically, so how can they bring democracy to the country?”
Moe Thu said that while the USDP claims Shwe Mann will remain as parliamentary speaker, the new session of parliament, scheduled for Aug. 18, will determine the layout of the political landscape going forward.
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.
Since Shwe Mann took over as chairman of the USDP and as speaker of the Union Parliament in 2013, relations between the USDP and the military have soured, as he ruffled feathers with his support for measures that would limit the military’s role in politics.
His announcements on several occasions that Thein Sein plans not to seek a second term—which were later refuted by the president—also cost him the support of those within the USDP, where he had tried to position himself as the party’s candidate.
The infighting was exposed last night amid reports that security forces had surrounded USDP headquarters during a meeting of the party’s central executive committee late Wednesday, though ruling party officials rejected those claims.
Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation democracy movement, expressed concern over the reports of the USDP’s use of security forces to resolve a dispute within its ranks.
“It shows we are still not very far away from bad precedents—that anything can be done if you have support from the army,” he said.
“Changes [like these] are normally carried out at party congresses. Only [those in charge] know why the security forces had to come in during the night to carry out the changes, but this is not a good development for the country’s future.”
Po Than Gyaung, spokesman for the Communist Party of Burma, said Thein Sein’s decision to remove Shwe Mann as chairman of the USDP echoed similar dismissals ordered by former military strongmen Ne Win and Than Shwe. Ne Win ruled the then Burma from 1962-88 and Than Shwe controlled the country from 1992-2011.
“During General Ne Win’s rule, party leaders were sacked when they were not in favor with the old man, and then again in Bo Than Shwe’s time,” he said.
“Though we can’t know for sure, Bo Than Shwe’s hand could be involved in this.”
Po Than Gyaung said the reshuffle may have been ordered by the government to rattle the nerves of the public as part of a bid and give greater control to the military ahead of the election.
“This development will not be of any good for the people—it will just cause more confusion, speculation and worry for them,” he said.
“It could be one of the government’s tricks to create such a situation.”
Effect on legislature
Other commentators suggested that the reshuffle could affect the influence of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in parliament, even if the opposition party does sweep the November elections, as it is widely expected to do.
“If there are splits within the ruling party, the opposition will make gains [in influence in the legislature], but if the changes bring more consolidation to the USDP, then it’s not good for the NLD,” Supreme Court Lawyer Ko Ni told RFA.
“The incoming USDP lawmakers [from the elections], plus the 166 [military lawmakers guaranteed seats according to the constitution] will join forces and could cause problems for NLD,” he said.
But Ko Ni said that Shwe Mann’s style of leadership had been “soft-spoken and politically flexible,” and his absence could benefit the opposition politically in parliament by creating schisms among the USDP lawmakers.
“If new people come in with hard-handed tactics and dissatisfaction arises among their ranks, it will be of benefit to the NLD,” he said.
The NLD is reeling from its own political infighting after a list of 1,090 candidates endorsed by the party’s central executive committee, and released in early August, failed in many cases to include candidates nominated by township and divisional party branches.
The list led to protests and resignations by party members in several constituencies over the weekend and on Monday, prompting Aung San Suu Kyi to tell supporters the NLD will take “full responsibility” for the performance of candidates.
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.