Myan­mar leader launches palace coup to un­der­mine am­bi­tious ri­val pre­tender


Myan­mar Pres­i­dent Thein Sein has launched a palace coup within the rul­ing party to shore up his sup­port and end the pres­i­den­tial hopes of his ri­val, the speaker of the lower house Thura Shwe Mann.

It also comes im­me­di­ately af­ter a mas­sive shake- up in the army hi­er­ar­chy — with nearly 200 se­nior of­fi­cers hav­ing re­tired or in the process of step­ping down — and a ma­jor reshuf­fle in Cab­i­net.

This ap­pears to be the fi­nal act in a bat­tle be­tween the two key giants in the Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment Party ( USDP) that has in­ten­si­fied in the last few months — be­com­ing in­creas­ingly public.

The latest move though seems to have been or­ches­trated by the army, and the for­mer mil­i­tary leader, Than Shwe, may also have been be­hind it.

In a mid­night raid on the USDP head­quar­ters in the cap­i­tal Naypyi­daw, led by sev­eral Cab­i­net min­is­ters, the po­lice sur­rounded the Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment Party’s of­fices and pre­vented any­one from leav­ing, ac­cord­ing to a source in­side the build­ing. Shwe Mann, the act­ing chair­man of the party — as un­der the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion Thein Sein could no longer run the party af­ter he was elected pres­i­dent — and the Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Maung Maung Thein were re­moved from their of­fi­cial po­si­tions in the party.

Vice Chair­man Htay Oo has been ap­pointed tem­po­rary chair­man.

He has been in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal Shwe Mann over the past year, and known to be close to Than Shwe.

He has also dis­tanced him­self from Thein Sein — be­ing an ar­dent sup­porter in the first two years of his pres­i­dency — but has be­come in­creas­ing con­cerned about Thein Sein’s i nde­ci­sive­ness over the past year or so.

“He is re­garded as the man in the mid­dle,” said se­nior party of­fi­cials on con­di­tion of anonymity. Htay Oo is now joint party chair­man with Pres­i­dent Thein Sein.

But it re­mains un­clear where this leaves the pres­i­dent and his chances of seek­ing a sec­ond term in of­fice.

Timed to Change

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What is clear is that this was timed to make changes to the party’s list of con­stituent can­di­dates and the rejection of the re­tir­ing mil­i­tary of­fi­cers.

Fri­day was the dead­line for the party lists to be sub­mit­ted to the Union Elec­tion Com­mis­sion — and then there is a fur­ther week when changes can be made.

“What is cer­tain is that this ‘ coup’ will have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the coun­try’s tran­si­tion to democ­racy,” said po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, Than Myo Thein.

With elec­tions less than three months away, the strug­gle is over who should run for the party in the forth­com­ing polls — and in which con­stituen­cies.

Maung Maung Thein was in charge of the se­lec­tion process and Shwe Mann — as the act­ing chair­man — ap­proved the lists. Prom­i­nent min­is­ters were left out, and Thein Sein de­clined to run for par­lia­ment be­cause of health con­cerns.

But the main con­cern was the party’s rejection — un­der Shwe Mann’s in­struc­tions — of the for­mer mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who wanted to join the party and run for par­lia­ment.

Ear­lier this week, 149 se­nior of­fi­cers re­tired from their army posts to en­ter pol­i­tics.

But at the party con­ven­tion on Wed­nes­day, only 59 of the for­mer army of­fi­cers were ac­cepted as can­di­dates.

Ten­sions be­tween USDP fac­tions and the mil­i­tary sur­faced in June, when the party backed a mo­tion — on Shwe Mann’s ini­tia­tive — that would have ended the mil­i­tary’s de facto abil­ity to veto con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments, as any change needs at least 75 per­cent of par­lia­ment to ap­prove it, and un­der the con­sti­tu­tion the mil­i­tary has 25 per­cent of the seats.

Shwe Mann has taken sev­eral swipes at the mil­i­tary in par­lia­ment in the last few months, caus­ing them to take of­fense.

But it has been his block­ing of the re­tir­ing se­nior of­fi­cers en­try into the USDP that has pre­cip­i­tated the re­cent show­down.

In the past, these mil­i­tary of­fi­cers would au­to­mat­i­cally have joined the USDP — as most of the min­is­ters and MPs did be­fore the 2010 elec­tion, in­clud­ing both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann.

Ur­gency and Sig­nif­i­cance Added

This is part of the usual mil­i­tary shake up and an­nual pro­mo­tions at this time of year. But this year has added ur­gency and sig­nif­i­cance be­cause of the up­com­ing elec­tions.

Nat­u­rally this batch of of­fi­cers ex­pected to join the USDP, be­come elec­tion can­di­dates, and some to be­come min­is­ters in the next Cab­i­net or be ap­pointed chief min­is­ters in the 14 states and re­gions.

But only a third of them were wel­comed into the party, ac­cord­ing to sources close to the army.

Fear­ing he would lose con­trol of the party, Shwe Mann blocked most of them from be­com­ing party mem­bers, and en­ter­ing pol­i­tics un­der the USDP flag.

Within the army at the very top Shwe Mann has be­gun to be openly called a traitor, ac­cord­ing to mil­i­tary sources. “The last time that hap­pened,” said a for­mer mil­i­tary of­fi­cer, who de­clined to be iden­ti­fied, “was ( for­mer in­tel­li­gence chief and prime min­is­ter) Khin Nyunt be­fore he was ar­rested and put un­der house ar­rest ( in Oc­to­ber 2004).” The speaker has ob­vi­ously bro­ken un­writ­ten laws of the army — es­pe­cially in try­ing to change the con­sti­tu­tion.

The USDP MP Thura Aung Ko — who re­cently had a heartache — said the di­vi­sions within the party were ir­rec­on­cil­able.

The cur­rent show­down is ob­vi­ously the re­sult of a move­ment within the party to get rid of Shwe Mann once and for all. “When it hap­pens, it will be the night of the long knives,” said a source in the pres­i­dent’s of­fice a few weeks ago, on con­di­tion of anonymity. So now that coup has been launched.

For­mer Se­nior Gen. Than Shwe re­port­edly sent a mes­sage shortly be­fore the USDP Cen­tral Com­mit­tee meet­ing in June warn­ing them to keep the party from frac­tur­ing.

“You three ( Thein Sein, Min Aung Hlaing and Shwe Mann) must learn to co­op­er­ate well,” he re­port­edly said. “or I may have to take things into m own hands,” he al­legedly said.

At present Thein Sein — with the Army Chief Se­nior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s sup­port — cer­tainly has the up­per hand.

But he is by no means sure of emerg­ing as the pres­i­dent af­ter the elec­tions.

Some an­a­lysts also fear that this coup may mean the elec­tions will be de­layed. “The polls on Nov. 8 are al­most cer­tain to be post­poned now,” said Yan Myo Thein.

And un­der the con­sti­tu­tion, the elec­toral com­mis­sioner can de­lay them up un­til the end of Jan­uary 2016 — five years af­ter par­lia­ment first met and elected Thein Sein as pres­i­dent for his fist term in of­fice. The writer is a spe­cial­ist on Myan­mar and a for­mer BBC World Ser­vice News Editor for the Asia re­gion.

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