Burmese parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann said Friday he has taken over the reins of the ruling party from President Thein Sein, who relinquished the post to abide by the country’s constitution.
Ending speculations on the transfer of leadership within the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Shwe Mann said he had taken over the chairman’s post this week though he had been filling the administrative duties of the role since October last year.
“I am now taking over the responsibilities of the party as its chairman,” the Speaker of the Lower House of parliament told reporters on the sidelines of the USDP's youth conference in the capital Naypyidaw.
Thein Sein had stepped down from the post, he said, out of concern for complying with the country’s constitution, which stipulates that the president “shall not take part in party activities.”
“We had the party’s first conference [in October 2012]. After a few days of the conference, President Thein Sein, the USDP chairman, handed over the leadership of the party because he respects and follows the constitution,” Shwe Mann said.
Thein Sein, who had been re-elected USDP chairman at the October 2012 conference, has spearheaded Burma’s reforms since taking office in March following decades of military junta rule.
In a sign of further thawing of U.S. relations in recognition of the reforms, Thein Sein is planning a landmark visit to Washington later this month, according to U.S. congressional and administration officials, reports said this week.
The May 20-21 trip would include a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and make Thein Sein the first leader of Burma to visit the White House in decades.
News of the possible visit came as the U.S. State Department lifted a sweeping ban on U.S visas to Burmese officials on Thursday, in a move intended “to strengthen and encourage further reform” in Burma.
Separate restrictions remain on visas for nationals accused of human rights violations following the lifting of the 1996 ban, which was a part of sanctions targeting officials accused of committing abuses during the country’s military rule.
Thein Sein, a former military general, was removed from the list of banned officials last year, and had visited the U.S. to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York last year.
Reports said Friday that the handover of Thein Sein’s USDP chairmanship to Shwe Mann had not been officially announced until this week but was communicated to executive party members.
The USDP’s newly launched Union Daily reported Thursday that Thein Sein had vacated his post but a member of parliament said at the sidelines of the May 1-3 youth conference that the president had not yet done so.
Under the previous military regime, Thein Sein was junior to Shwe Mann, who was the junta’s third-in-command and is now a major campaigner for reforms.
The USDP, the successor party to the Burmese military’s Union Solidarity and Development Association, is preparing to face a resurgent opposition led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2015 general elections.
The USDP won three quarters of the seats in parliament in the last general election in November 2010, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted.
But in April 2012 by-elections, the NLD won 43 out of 44 seats it contested, making it the largest opposition party in parliament and ushering into office the longtime democracy leader, who had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest under the former military junta.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she would be willing to lead the country as president and that her party will work to amend laws that block her from leading the government.
Thein Sein has left open the possibility of seeking another term in office, saying this depends “on the needs of the country.”
Reported by Win Naung Toe for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.