Burmese elite politics have been historically a realm of intrigue and abrupt changes, in which a high-ranking general could fall from power overnight and traces of his influence would be erased almost instantly. This happened again on August 13, when parliament speaker Shwe Mann – a former general – was removed from his post as chairman of the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
According to news reports, security forces were deployed to the USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw during a pre-election meeting of party leaders to remove Shwe Mann with the nod of President Thein Sein. His ouster carries significant implications for Myanmar’s political landscape ahead of the upcoming general elections in November as well as the calculus of foreign governments toward Myanmar.
Shwe Mann’s attempts in early July to push through constitutional amendments that would have reduced the military’s role in parliament sidelined him within the traditional military elite. Shwe Mann hoped to win the nomination of his party to be a presidential candidate following the November elections. But his preemptive announcements on several instances of Thein Sein’s plans not to seek a second presidential term – which the president later refuted – have cost him the support of those within the USDP, as well as the bureaucracy, who back Thein Sein.
Among Myanmar’s top political leaders, Shwe Mann has built the best rapport with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is barred from the presidency by the 2008 constitution but whose approval is seen as necessary for the next government’s international legitimacy. It was believed that Aung San Suu Kyi was open to forming a coalition with a future government in which Shwe Mann would serve as president.
Domestically, Shwe Mann’s fall from power threw open the doors for Thein Sein to seek a second term. Thein Sein will not be running as a USDP parliamentary candidate in November, but has been reappointed as USDP chairman – a position that he gave up after becoming president. Equally important, it leaves Aung San Suu Kyi more vulnerable, as other political players will likely read from the latest machinations that developing a close relationship with her, even one out of necessity or convenience, might spell disaster for their political fortunes.
Shwe Mann’s ouster signals another encroachment of the military into Myanmar’s political life, not long after military-appointed lawmakers flexed their muscles to vote down major constitutional amendments. There have been talks for some time that the military, which engineered Myanmar’s political opening in 2011, will not allow the reform process to go any further than the present state of affairs. It only granted limited political freedom to people in exchange for international legitimacy and foreign investment inflows.
The USDP, it follows, was designed to serve this purpose. Yet under Shwe Mann’s leadership, the Union Parliament has risen to be a robust body that has asserted its voice in some of the most important issues, from budget allocations for government agencies (including for the military) to the maverick peace process. With an increasingly open media, the assertiveness of many USDP lawmakers has only made military appointees, who make up 25 percent of the legislature, look ineffective and out of touch in the public’s eyes.
With Shwe Mann’s influence trimmed, parliament will doubtlessly become less spirited. He will be allowed to retain his lawmaker post and speakership for now, with his presence a constant reminder to those who might be tempted to disregard the military.