In Myanmar, a Soft Coup Ahead of an Election

Campaigning formally started on Tuesday for Myanmar’s first general election since the end of direct military rule, but don’t be fooled by the display of colorful logos and slogans from various political parties: The army is back in force.

Military apparatchiks in the nominally democratic government have refused to amend the Constitution to allow the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency. Last month, Thura Shwe Mann — a rival of President Thein Sein, a high-ranking general in the previous military government — was forcibly removed from his position as chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (U.S.D.P.).

The purge was more than standard internecine strife; it was an internal coup by the president and his traditional backers, mostly among the military. It was also a sign that with an election just weeks away, the army is eager to reassert control over Myanmar’s political process, and remind all contenders for power that it will allow liberalization only so long as reform ushers in what top generals have called a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”

The rivalry between Mr. Thein Sein and Mr. Shwe Mann, also a senior general in the former junta, is long-standing.

But lately Mr. Shwe Mann had proved too good at leveraging his position as speaker of the lower house of Parliament to cater to the clientelistic interests of some legislators, offering them higher salaries and pork-barrel spending. He had also been building bridges with the opposition and had dared to challenge the military directly.

Some weeks ago, the army chief wrote a three-page letter to Mr. Shwe Mann detailing his missteps: among other things, supporting Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for a high-level political dialogue, and backing a bill proposing to lift the army’s veto authority over constitutional reform. In late July, the army circulated a petition to impeach him.

When last month Mr. Shwe Mann and other U.S.D.P. leaders rejected more than half of the retired senior officers the army had preselected as candidates to put on the party’s ticket for the November election, the generals had had enough. Late at night on Aug. 12, the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is directly controlled by the military, sent some 400 police officers to surround U.S.D.P. headquarters and obtain Mr. Shwe Mann’s demotion.

That show of force smacked of the strong-arm tactics favored by the old junta. Thura Aung Ko, an ally of Mr. Shwe Mann who was also recently sacked from a senior position at the U.S.D.P., told the media that Than Shwe, the general who led Myanmar from 1992 to 2011, probably had played a role in the purge. Party insiders I have spoken to over the past few weeks said the same thing.

U Htay Oo, who now chairs the U.S.D.P. along with Mr. Thein Sein, told me that Mr. Than Shwe regards the party — whose predecessor he founded two decades ago — as his brainchild, and that he had planned for it and the army to jointly run Myanmar for several decades after the country’s ostensible move toward democracy in 2010. Mr. Shwe Mann’s rising influence seems to have forced Mr. Than Shwe’s hand, convincing him that the military needed to step in to save his vision of the U.S.D.P.

Mr. Shwe Mann has remained speaker since being deposed as party leader. (There are rules about how to strip him of that post, and the army apparently is bashful enough not to bypass them.) He has been keeping a low profile. Yet to the dismay of the military and the party’s new leaders, Parliament voted to suspend discussion of a bill proposing his impeachment: Mr. Shwe Mann’s power may have been undercut, but he does not stand alone. Distrust between the army and civilian politicians has continued to grow in the meantime, as the military has resumed pushing for more senior officers to be included on the U.S.D.P.’s ticket.

When the people of Myanmar vote on Nov. 8, they will be electing representatives for 75 percent of the seats in Parliament; under the Constitution the other 25 percent are reserved for the army. All legislators will then elect the president by a simple majority from among three vice presidential candidates: two nominated by each house of Parliament, the third designated by the military.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be a candidate for the presidency, but her party, the National League for Democracy, is nonetheless expected to do well in the popular vote — and perhaps well enough to have some clout in choosing the next president. Except that, of course, with the military’s one-quarter quota of the seats in Parliament, the system is inherently stacked against the opposition.

To win the presidency, the candidate backed by the N.L.D. and its allies would need to secure a supermajority among the nonmilitary members of Parliament. Yet a candidate from the U.S.D.P. who was endorsed by the army, being assured the votes of military representatives, could become president even if the party lost the popular vote.

Mr. Thein Sein’s putsch against Mr. Shwe Mann put a dent in the legitimacy of the government — which is now redoubling efforts to secure a major cease-fire agreement with ethnic armed groups so it can claim to have ended Myanmar’s long-running civil war. But by sidelining a leading figure of the U.S.D.P. whom Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had called an ally, the president managed to undermine two rivals at once while consolidating his ties with the military. The army, for its part, is once again manipulating Myanmar’s political scene to ensure that it remains in charge, election or not.

Min Zin is a contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog Democracy Lab, and serves as a Myanmar expert for think tanks and NGOs like Freedom House.

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