Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Government’s inner party struggle: Would USDP become a democratic mass party?

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With the purge of parliamentary house speaker, Thura Shwe Mann, the military backed party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was transformed from the military setup civil organization, Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), slides back into a fully fledged military proxy party that could be identified with the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), from 1964 to 1988, a one party dictatorship, in a totalitarian state.


By all means, it is a drawback and a disappointment for those who are hoping that this military created party would somehow evolves with the time into a mass party that caters to democratic principles, interacting with the seemingly liberal political institution like the parliament, would transform itself into a democratic mass party, given enough time. But this positive and affirmative good-will thinking might now be in jeopardy.

The purge of Thura Shwe Mann

Thura Shwe Mann was removed as head of the ruling USDP on 13 August, after a night of high political drama, which saw security forces enter the party base in the capital Naypyitaw.

According to witnesses, security forces entered USDP headquarters in Naypyitaw at 10:30 p.m. A dozen cars then left the offices around 2 a.m., on 13 August. No reporters were able to enter the party compound as rumors spread that serious problems had come to a head and that Thura U Shwe Mann was subject to a quick, decisive, internal coup, reported Myanmar Times of 14 August.

The same report said that the decision to remove U Shwe Mann was made because he was “very busy” with his dual roles of parliamentary speaker and party chair, alleged a statement that the USDP eventually produced. President U Thein Sein was appointed in his stead, though vice chair U Htay Oo will serve as acting chair since the president by law cannot also be performing his duties as the party leader at the same time.

But this argument seems illusive, as many believe that the reason for such an ouster is due to his readiness to amend the constitution, which would clip the wings of the military faction within the parliament, and his nearness and intimacy to Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the main government’s rival party.

The military was very upset and unforgiving for Thura Shwe Mann had thrown in his weight on the amendments of the constitution, particularly the proposal to trim down the military’s veto voting power bloc of of 25%, which is in a position to hinder any amendment proposal by voting against it. For any amendment proposal needs to overcome the 75% benchmark ceiling, in order to sail through the first parliamentary hearing. Apart from that, his proposal to bring the military faction under the party’s influence by trying to amend a clause that presidential nominee would need to be an elected MP, as this would effectively block the 25% military bloc to nominate a presidential candidate. Thus taking away the rights of the military faction to be part of the presidential race. According to the constitution, the two parliamentary houses – lower and upper – and the military bloc could each nominate one presidential candidate.

Again, it is quite well known that Shwe Mann is politically very near to Aung San Suu Kyi and this doesn’t go down well with the military faction.

In an interview with the BBC Burmese service in July, Mr Shwe Mann was questioned about his perceived closeness to Ms Suu Kyi “If I have to say this clearly: rather than Suu Kyi and I being on one side, we could say that the people and I are on one side,” he responded.

He might have been trying to portray his position as being a democrat and that he would stand by the people, rather than for the military class, which he belongs to all his life.

Apart from that, hours before he was ousted, Shwe Mann had rejected applications from dozens of newly retired military generals to run in the election under the USDP’s banner.

Reuters report of 16 August, according to U Ye Htut, information minister and spokesman of President Thein Sein, Shwe Mann was sacked as ruling party chairman because he supported controversial bills in parliament and had ties to rival party leaders, in an interview with Reuters on 15 August.

In the most detailed explanation yet by the government on why Shwe Mann was ousted just three months before a general election, Ye Htut said while acknowledging Shwe Mann’s ouster was not good for the party’s image ahead of the November election, Shwe Mann had made some “very questionable” decisions in parliament over the past year that reflected his own political ambitions rather than what was best for the party and the country.

He mentioned that members of the USDP’s governing body sent Thein Sein a secret letter a few weeks ahead of the purge, complaining the lack of transparency in his relationships with rival party leaders, although he declined to say with whom.

His support in June for a constitutional amendment to limit the military’s power, a bill that failed to pass parliament but was backed by Suu Kyi, was seen as an unforgivable sin by the military.

“He sometimes tried to force his will on other people,” Ye Htut said. “This kind of thing happened again and again. Because of his leadership style, there was a lot of concern about intra-party democracy.”

Restructuring after the purge

The official statement of USDP following the purge was explained that the decision to remove Shwe Mann was made because he was “very busy” with his dual roles of parliamentary Speaker and party chair; and that President U Thein Sein was appointed in his stead, though vice chair U Htay Oo will serve as acting chair since the president by law cannot also concurrently take on the party leader’s job.

Myanmar Times report of 14 August said that the Central Executive Committee (CEC) was also reshuffled, excising loyalists to U Shwe Mann and inserting a new cast of former military elites. During a 15-minute press conference, the outgoing party members were referred to as being “allowed to resign”.

Several former military officials who had retired resigned to join the party and some ministers those have also been reassigned to take part in the new CEC. Former CEC members closely allied with U Shwe Mann were also axed. Thura U Aung Ko , U Maung Maung Thein, U Aung Thein Linn and others were granted permission by the president to leave their posts.

The purge cutting through the centre of the party was explained as if it had been a long coming plan. U Pike Htwe, a former deputy minister for information, said U Thein Sein had always been the party’s leader.

“He transferred his duty to vice chairman [U Shwe Mann] as a temporary party chair because according to the constitution he could not serve the party while he was president. The chair of the party according to our registration with the Union Election Commission is U Thein Sein,” he said.

For now, he is not being detained as many have suspected but is said to be going about his daily routine as parliamentary speaker, attending to his chores.

Myanmar Times reported, while U Shwe Mann has lost his top spot, he has not been kicked out of the party, according to U Maung Maung Htay, a former deputy minister for religious affairs. He will remain member of the party and as well a candidate, adding that he will serve as speaker of the parliament until the end of the present parliament term.

Possible Shwe Mann response

U Hla Swe, a USDP representative for Amyotha Hluttaw said U Shwe Mann is not the kind of person who gives up easily.

“He would not make the decision to voluntary resign,” said U Hla Swe. “He has very clear ambitions to be president,” according to Myanmar Times.

And as such, he might be plotting on how to hit back and restore his position, one way or the other.

Policial commentator Dr. Yan Myo Thein, in 7 Day Daily report, on 15 August, outlined a few points on the inconsistency of the latest USDP move.

According to the press release of USDP, the party has been restructured to include, elders, middle age and youth groups to work for the benefit of the country, people and party, in case special condition arises. It is restructured and innovated the party’s basic principles of Sections 114 (e – nya), 68 (a – ka) and 90 (g – hsa), according to Yan Myo Thein.

The union ministers and military personnel that were allowed to resign, on 12 August, were included in a new CEC setup of USDP, while Shwe Mann was demoted to an ordinary member, together with those who were near to him.

Involving in party politics is prohibited for the president and as well, for the union ministers. The Sections stated clearly in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Constitution (2008) are as follows:-

  1. If the President or the Vice-Presidents are members of a political party, they shall not take part in its party activities during their term of office from the day of their election.

232 (k) If the Union Minister is a member of any political party, he shall not take part in its party activities during the term of office from the day he is appointed as a Union Minister.

234 (f) If the Deputy Minister is a representative of a Hluttaw or a Civil Services personnel or a Defence Services personnel, or a member of a political party, the provisions of Sub-Sections (i), (j) and (k) of Section 232 shall be applied.

232 (i) If the Union Minister is a representative of a Hluttaw, it shall be deemed that he has resigned from the day he is appointed as a Union Minister.

(j) (i) If the Union Minister is a Civil Services personnel, it shall be deemed that he has retired according to the existing civil service rules and regulations from the day he is appointed as a Union


(ii) The Defence Services personnel who are appointed as Union Ministers for the Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs are not required to retire or resign from the Defence


(k) If the Union Minister is a member of any political party, he shall not take part in its party activities during the term of office from the day he is appointed as a Union Minister.

It is not clear, at the moment, if Shwe Mann would take this matter to Constitutional Tribunal, in the light of controversial “party politics” engagement of the president and union ministers; and challenge President Thein Sein’s heavy-handedness, by using security apparatus to mould the party according to the military faction’s liking.

Impeachment law and media gag

If the USDP inner party struggle could be taken as resolved, the punishment of Shwe Mann is far from over, as the pushing for ratification of impeachment law by the Union Election Commission (UEC) and gagging of media outlets, which are near any sympathetic to him are in the pipeline.

The UEC has called on Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, who was recently removed from the chairmanship of Burma’s ruling party, to immediately enact a law on impeachment proceedings for lawmakers, according to government medias that splashed out on its front pages recently.

Accordingly, the UEC has sent its fourth letter to the parliamentary leadership on the matter, the first instruction being delivered in August 2012, but the latest invocation comes less than a month after it was revealed that the election commission had received a petition calling for the impeachment of the now former chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Shwe Mann.

The petition had gathered some 1,700 signatures from Shwe Mann’s Naypyitaw constituency of Zayarthiri, with signatories claiming he had violated the law by not respecting the military’s role in Parliament, reported The Irrawaddy on 14 August.

The right to recall parliamentarians is enshrined in Chapter 9 of the Constitution, and the charter’s Article 397 states: “The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw [Union Parliament] shall enact the necessary laws on matters relating to ‘Election’ and on matters relating to ‘Recall.’”

Following Shwe Mann’s removal as ruling party chief, the Ministry of Information ordered the Union Daily newspaper and the weekly journal The Leader to suspend print runs, Yamin Tin, editor-in-chief of Union Daily, told Reuters, on 14 August.

Both publications are run by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and, until Wednesday, were regarded as mouthpieces for Shwe Mann.

Also on Friday, radio station Cherry FM, linked to Shwe Mann’s daughter-in-law, was off the air. “We lost our signal,” said Than Htwe Zaw, a manager at Cherry FM.

Meanwhile, BBC on 15 August reported that information minister U Ye Htut and the Cherry FM have made an agreement to halt operation for three months. According to Ye Htut, the Cherry FM couldn’t give satisfactory adherence to the prescription of refraining from personal and political party endorsement during the election period. Thus three months suspension of broadcasting was agreed.

The VOA report on 15 August quoted former military intelligence officer, now exiled in the US, as saying: “ In the case of U Shwe Mann, (the regime) cannot do like during the era of military dictatorship; for it has proclaimed to be a democracy and would not revert (from reform process) back to the international community. As it also has said the same to the domestic audience, I see that it has to weigh and measure a bit in doing things, so that it fits into the mould of the frame (existing law and political framework).”

He speculated that Thein Sein regime will push for the ratification of impeachment law, followed by the ouster of Shwe Mann from the house speaker position and a row of law suits against him.

What others say

Domestic politicians and as well, international observers have aired their opinion on the latest USDP row that had made use of the security apparatus to achieve the government and military faction goal.

Myanmar Times reported that Sai Nyunt Lwin , general secretary of the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD) said the incident revealed the military’s unyielding grip.

“The military doesn’t like Thura U Shwe Mann and also U Shwe Mann doesn’t support the military members of parliament. So now they removed him to strengthen their role ahead of the elections,” he said, adding that the speaker’s preference for changing the 15-year in the making junta-drafted constitution had been the last straw.

Sai Leik, spokesperson of the SNLD, aired his opinion in the same vein, saying that “ It is ugly to use force in settling the inner party dispute using security force. People are worried that there won’t be election and the top-level meeting between the ethnic armed organizations and the President, to resolve the conflict, will be put off,” according to The Irrawaddy interview, on 13 August.

The same report also quoted Dr. Tu Ja of Kachin Democracy Party that although he is not worried that the election would not take place, for it is still two months away, he is only concerned that the meeting between the President, Commander-in-Chief and top five ethnic armed organizations won’t take place.

In a recent report of RFA on 16 August, when asked about the ethnic opinion, on the eve of the presidential invitation to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement, regarding the ouster of Shwe Mann as head of the USDP, Nai Han Tha, the Mon leader and one of the well known top ethnic peace negotiator replied: “It is true that trust has been depleted to a certain extent. If they could do like this within their own organization, they could also do likewise to the other ethnic groups, if they don’t get the result the wanted.”

The AP report of 14 August reported that the U.S. policymakers are criticizing the role of Burmese security forces in the nighttime ouster of the ruling party chief, which shows the fragility of political reforms as the Southeast Asian nation gears up for November elections.

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the most prominent congressional voice on Myanmar, has expressed mounting unease over the country’s direction. He said the manner of Shwe Mann’s ouster “should give pause to supporters of democratic reform in Burma.”

“The reported role of state security forces in the effort to unseat a party official is deeply disturbing, especially given Burmese history,” McConnell, of Kentucky, said in a statement.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called on all parties “to recommit to free, fair and credible elections in November,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Summing up

To sum up, the purging of Shwe Mann and the way it was done, by using the security forces to impose the change according to the military faction’s planning that the party serves the military class rather than the people; filling up the CEC with military personnel and those who just retired from government ministries to go into party politics; and President Thein Sein involving in party politics, even though the military self-drafted constitution doesn’t allow him to participate, are indications that the USDP remains a totalitarian and not a democratic mass party, as it wants to portray itself.

The question arises whether such a party with totalitarian structure, military backup organization could cater to democratic principles and lead the country to democratization process. It seems the party is more interested in a “group survival” and political power monopoly than genuinely serving the people.

The main point of the USDP purges is more than an inner party struggle. The use of security apparatus to intimidate the party members or faction is a totally unacceptable move, for this is not in conformity of a democratic culture and principles. Another crucial point is that the replacement of a party chairman must be according to the procedure, in which the party representative members should elect the new CEC and chairman through majority consensus or secret voting. But not forcefully replacing it, if the party is to become a democratic one.

Last but not least, what Thant Myint U, a Burmese historian told The Straits Times on 15 August, should be a reminder of the real political nature of the recent situation. He said that “Styling the purge a victory of conservatives over progressives is extremely misleading, and that one will find reformists and hardliners and the full mix of motives in both camps.”

The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU)-Editor

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