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.
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.”