edge review8-14 November 2013

Photo: House Speaker Shwe Mann stands next to other parliamentarians (Utenriksdepartementet\flickr).

Tensions between Myanmar’s top two civilian leaders threaten stability of the ruling party

With his assertive demeanour and penchant for off-the-cuff remarks, Shwe Mann – the Speaker of the House in Myanmar’s Union Parliament – is an altogether different breed of politician from Myanmar’s discreet and calculating president, Thein Sein.

But not all is well in Naypyidaw. As Myanmar trundles towards nationwide polls in 2015, relations between parliament and the president’s office – privately tense at the best of times – have deteriorated significantly and are now increasingly out in the open, underscoring a resurgent rivalry that is likely to have implications for the 2015 polls and beyond.

An Uneasy Alliance

Shwe Mann and Thein Sein’s political trajectories have long been intertwined out of convenience, but there has historically been little love lost between them. By the start of reforms, Shwe Mann had attained the rank of number three in the outgoing junta, his loyalty to Than Shwe demonstrated by the instrumental role he played in the 2004 purge of military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt. A decade younger than Maung Aye, the junta’s second-in-command, Shwe Mann was widely tipped by observers to succeed Than Shwe as head of state.

But when Thein Sein was chosen to hold the country’s highest civilian office, Shwe Mann was caught off guard, incredulous that he had been passed over in favour of his bookish, bureaucratic colleague. For Than Shwe, choosing Thein Sein was a pragmatic decision. Thein Sein’s lack of an established profile, and his apparent willingness to go with the program unquestioningly, made him well-suited to navigate the uncharted waters of Myanmar’s incipient reforms over the more independent-minded Shwe Mann.

At first, Shwe Mann was made speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, an important role that granted him oversight over the early stages of legislation. The two ex-generals were forced to set aside whatever personal animosities they held, because they had both been tasked with pushing ahead with sweeping reforms that were unpopular with hardliners from the old order.

Thein Sein has proven a shrewd political operator throughout his tenure, ordering a number of cabinet reshuffles with the aim of limiting the power of hardline anti-reform elements within the government. Although Shwe Mann is generally perceived by the public to be more corrupt than the president, their shared goals of attracting foreign investment and normalising relations with the West mandated collaboration.

But even during the earliest days of reform, the animosity between the two was apparent. In October last year, Thein Sein was re-nominated as the head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the junta-conceived party that holds the majority of seats in parliament. This took many observers by surprise, because the 2008 constitution explicitly forbids the president or vice-presidents from “tak[ing] part in… party activities during their term of office from the day of their election.” Shwe Mann had been widely expected to assume the role of party chairman, and it was a significant snub that Thein Sein was chosen in contravention of the law. Bowing to pressure over his two conflicting roles, Thein Sein passed the torch to Shwe Mann on May 1 this year.

As reforms have begun to take root and hardliners have been sidelined, the clash between the two highest-ranking civilians in government has increasingly spilled over into the public domain. If the tensions between the two factions are not resolved, there is a risk of a split within the USDP before Myanmar goes to the polls in 2015.

Ambition and Strategy

One of the most remarkable aspects of Shwe Mann’s political resurgence is his relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, who is widely believed to have backed his faction in the rift between parliament and the president’s office. In his previous incarnation as Than Shwe’s henchman, Shwe Mann is alleged to have had a prominent role in planning the 2003 Depayin Massacre, an assassination attempt against Suu Kyi that left more than 70 of her followers dead. For Shwe Mann, his alliance with Suu Kyi legitimizes him in the eyes of the international community and Myanmar’s citizens alike, no mean feat given the glowing praise – both international and domestic – bestowed upon Thein Sein over the past two years.

In late October, Shwe Mann publicly announced his support for constitutional amendments that would allow Suu Kyi to vie for the presidency, which she is currently unable to do owing to her previous marriage to a foreigner and the British citizenship held by her two children — obstacles to becoming president that are enshrined in the current constitution. Thein Sein has been less vocally supportive, claiming coyly in a June interview that the matter of constitutional reform lay exclusively with parliament and that as the head of the executive branch, he didn’t “have a say.”

Shwe Mann has also publicly criticised how the president’s office has handled peace negotiations with the country’s myriad armed ethnic groups. In July, he called for parliamentarians to play a role in the negotiations – or at the very least, play a consulting role – in a process that is currently entirely steered by the executive branch under the auspices of the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC), a nominally independent, government-backed think-tank. In an October interview with The Irrawaddy, he accused the MPC of going beyond its mandate, claiming it  “is not a decision-maker and cannot make political decisions.”

On October 25, Shwe Mann claimed that Thein Sein had confided in him that he was not going to run for the presidency in 2015. While observers have long suspected that the president’s ill health will prevent him from contesting the polls in 2015, the president’s office has not confirmed or denied this. In an interview with broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma, presidential spokesman Ye Htut chastised Shwe Mann for his comments, claiming “the president may have shared his views with the parliamentary speaker in a private meeting, but he only meant to share it with him.”

Carving Up Parliament

Even if Thein Sein doesn’t run for president in 2015, he still has loyalists who might become disenchanted enough with Shwe Mann to establish a new party. While a schism within the USDP would bring about more electoral competition, an additional party might fragment the composition of parliament to a point where no party has a clear majority – perhaps threatening effective policymaking in a country where democracy is in its infancy.

A quarter of the seats in parliament remain reserved for the military, in keeping with the provisions of the 2008 constitution. The soldiers almost always vote as a bloc, and whether Suu Kyi and her allies can convince them to back the constitutional reforms that would allow her to become president remains to be seen. Judging by its electoral performance in by-elections held in early 2012, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi’s party, is massively popular, but it is likely that its popularity would slip somewhat if its matriarch were to be denied a crack at the presidency.

Regardless, if the 2015 elections are conducted in a reasonably free and fair manner, as were the 2012 by-elections, there is bound to be real competition at the polls between the USDP, the NLD and, perhaps, a splinter party loyal to Thein Sein. Further complicating the political landscape is a decision taken recently by 16 of the country’s ethnic minority political parties to form the new Federal Union Party (FUP), a coalition that could potentially pull votes from ethnic minorities in the country.

But all of this fragmentation might actually play into the military’s hands. If the USDP were to split and the NLD were to see significant electoral gains, the military’s 166 unelected seats — spread between the two houses of parliament — might actually give it a plurality, paving the way for it to elect a president of its choosing under the rules laid out in the 2008 constitution.  Last Friday, a military MP from the Lower House told The Irrawaddy that he expects current commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, to run for president in the next election after 2015 – a dangerous prospect for democratic consolidation.

But the notion that the military might have the swing votes to choose the next president may be enough to kick-start cooperation between the two USDP factions, despite the party’s roots in the old military order. And even if, in the unlikely event that the military does fill the largest number of seats in parliament come 2015, it may opt to elect a candidate with solid democratic credentials in the interests of retaining the government’s legitimacy in a post-reform era. Many unknowns remain in the run-up to the 2015 polls, and the stability of Myanmar’s still-fragile political reforms may be contingent on the resolution of this ongoing clash of personalities and ambitions between the two most powerful civilians in the land.

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