ELECTION 2015
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Burma’s Last Man Standing

Thein Sein has played the game well, guiding a “reform” process that keeps the establishment powers on side. Will this count in his favor post-November?


Like it or not, Burma’s incumbent President Thein Sein appears perfectly placed to make a run for the presidency in 2016.

A key reason is that the 70-year-old former general has proven himself to be a wily political operator able to claim a central role in guiding a limited reform process that has not threatened Burma’s establishment figures and institutions.

Realists could argue that few leaders would be able to survive in the current political context where the old guard, including the military, cast a long shadow over the political stage.

The “guided” reform process, as endorsed by ex-junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe, is supposed to run “smoothly”—in other words, while safeguarding the 2008 Constitution and protecting the military’s key role in the prevailing political order.

Since former junta-era prime minister Thein Sein took the presidential reigns in early 2011, he has stuck to his lines, managing a reform process while keeping the establishment onside.

As president, he has opened up the country to some extent, politically and economically, leading to international praise and the lifting of most Western sanctions.

He also managed to convince the leader of Burma’s main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi, to contest the 2012 by-election, contributing to the legitimacy of a Parliament stacked with unelected military MPs and ruling party representatives installed after a 2010 poll widely seen as plagued by electoral fraud.

But Thein Sein’s appeal to conservative factions’ hinges in part on his role in shepherding the country’s controversial, military-drafted Constitution, through a time of political change.

In some quarters, this is chalked up as a “success” for Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government.

Presidential Power Plays

Two major political reshuffles have marked Thein Sein’s time in office, underlining his political endurance and his willingness to reel in rivals before seeing his place in the pecking order undermined.

In July 2012, just over a year since the cabinet was formed, Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo who, like Thein Sein, was a former general, was permitted to stand down for “health reasons.”

At the time, sources described his ailment as throat cancer. Today, the former vice prime minister is reportedly fit and healthy.

In reality, Tin Aung Myint Oo was said to have opposed several of the ‘reformist’ initiatives proposed by Thein Sein, which ultimately led to his dismissal.

Despite both men’s closeness to their former boss Than Shwe, ultimately Tin Aung Myint Oo was seen as too conservative for the foreign-friendly veneer that the president and his allies were seeking to project.

Fast-forward to August 2015, and another political confrontation involving the president took place, this time within the halls of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

MOST DISCUSSED

In a dramatic late-night reshuffle involving security forces deployed to the party’s headquarters in Naypyidaw, the powerful Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann was purged from his post as party chairman, along with several allies.

Observers characterized the move as the final act in a political feud between the president and the speaker in which the former, crucially, had the military on his side.

Why was Shwe Mann removed?

At least on the surface—and possibly for his own self-advancement—it seemed Shwe Mann was walking to a different tune.

It was well-publicized that the former chairman was cultivating a cozy relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi—the most public face of opposition to successive ruling regimes since 1988.

Shwe Mann, the third most powerful figure in the previous military junta, also allowed a vote in the Parliament on constitutional change, including on a proposed amendment which would have scrapped the military’s effective veto on future revisions.

His relationship with Suu Kyi had become a thorn in the side of Thein Sein’s military-backed government, with some viewing him as a traitor.

But the government had been keeping an eye on him.

Regarding the speaker’s ties with the Suu Kyi, one senior government minister told the author in Naypyidaw earlier this year: “We tried to tally how many times they met but lost count. They held countless ‘four eyes’ meetings.”

While not all observers were so easily swayed, some internal party factions evidently saw Shwe Mann as a reformist and a threat to the established order.

The house speaker made no secret of his ambition to become president. But even this appeared somewhat palatable for ruling party powerbrokers, in contrast to his courting of Burma’s opposition leader.

Shwe Mann also appeared to have crossed the line in stating that Thein Sein would not contest the presidency in 2016.

Last Man Standing

From these two major purges, Thein Sein emerged stronger, with more control over a process in which he plays a chameleon-type role—not too “liberal” for the conservatives but able to claim legitimacy as the face of a top-down reform process began under his presidency.

With Shwe Mann gone, apparent rivals for the top job—providing the establishment forces have a major say post-November—are few.

Thein Sein will not run for a seat in Parliament, but this has no bearing on his eligibility to run for president as under the constitution, nominees do not need to be sitting lawmakers.

Speculation has surrounded the intentions of Burma Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who has not ruled out a tilt at the country’s highest office.

But after the intraparty purge on August 12, it appears the military and the executive are on the same page, decreasing the likelihood of direct competition between the two top leaders.

Another theory posits that the current commander-in-chief could assume the top mantle if Thein Sein chooses not to see out the full five-year term.

Either way, the likelihood of Burma seeing a truly civilian president following elections, now less than three months away, seems improbable.

As long as the president’s pacemaker continues to function, Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing are likely to work together, safeguarding the Constitution, “guiding” the reform process and fulfilling the previous junta’s mantra of “discipline-flourishing democracy.”

14 Comments
Yarzarthingyan

President Thein Sein has ruined the façade of reform as well as the integrity of USDP and himself. Myanmar people has lost complete faith .Htay Oo or Min Aung Hlaing , most likely be the next USDP knight.
Regarding General Shwe Mann, he is well respected by a broad spectrum of the military and the people. A traitor to a traitor is being honored as a patriot and a nationalist.
God bless the nation and democratic reform.

Reply
Yarzarthingyan

One may sing a song “another one bite the dust,another one-another one bite the dust” You may soon see ” another one bite the mud” God has finished his use of him, and is being regarded as a liability. God still rule Naypyidaw.

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Menrihei Tainamkawng

Reform at the speed of a turtle is not good enough. He needs to establish a real federal system in the Union.

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Daw Onmar

“Last man standing, …” – “as long as his pacemaker continues to function,” … is not a very secure position.
Change is inevitable.

Reply
Aung Kyaw Thu

Yes, That very true my sister, million of people are waiting to change. We do have the obligation for the future generation. Our children deserve go to bed without hungry, go to school without worrying and sleep without fearing. If we do not fight , nothing come free. This election is a fight between people and militay top brass who use the military for their own good.I believe the true will previail. Generation of our brother and sister give up their life for change, their scrifice not going in vain.

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David Smith

Excuse me please. I am really lost. Thein Sein running for President in 2016? I don’t get it. I am an investigative journalist. could some explain to me. Thein Sein was or still is with USDP, that has only some 40 MPs in parliament. How can he be president in 2016. I am totally confused.
NLD has majority seats and they decide who the President will be. Military can propose Thein Sein as President but he must get more than 50% of MPs’ votes, that is most unlikely. The Lady would not like it, understandably.
For Thein Sein to be President again, he needs 25% of military MPs plus all non-NLD MPs and to make up the number, NLD MPs. How can NLD MPs vote against their own Chairwoman Suu Kyi? Mind boggles.

I am really lost.

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Daw Onmar

Many people in the old establishment are finished after the elections, and that makes them dangerous..The lady has to tread a peaceful path with care.

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Yarzarthingyan

Puppets at play.They all were given madates by someone in the hiding. The best they are free to do is PR work to deflect world’s attention. No use discussing with these nobodies. It will be a waste of time.

Every ethnics have someone to defend them, bamas have n o n e..

If and when Hillary become President, behavior may change.

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MaungMaung Kyin

Hoping that finally she will become “The Head of the State” which will have to be approved by their own “Great Constitution 2008″.Kindly request to refer to ” He can who think he can” by Orison Swett Marden book issued in Jan,11,1921.

Reply

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