RANGOON — The former vice chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Htay Oo, will jointly chair the party alongside President Thein Sein, according to a USDP statement released Thursday, adding another wrinkle to a shakeup that has rocked the political establishment less than three months ahead of a crucial nationwide vote.
Shwe Mann, the party’s previous joint chairman, was removed from the post by Thein Sein on Wednesday, lending credence to persistent rumors in recent months of a growing rift between the two leaders.
The USDP statement did not indicate that differences between the two men had anything to do with the reshuffle, however, saying that with elections approaching, “now is the time [for a different joint chairman] to focus more on the party’s functions,” relieving Shwe Mann of those obligations and allowing him to focus on his duties as speaker of the Union Parliament and Lower House.
The announcement on Thursday again throws into the spotlight an issue of constitutionality that first drew scrutiny when Thein Sein was re-elected as party chairman in October 2012, seemingly in violation of the 2008 Constitution: A constitutional clause states that the president “shall not take part in its party activities during their term of office from the day of their election.”
In the years since, it has been widely believed that Thein Sein had handed over his role as chairman, but on Thursday the party maintained that he had always held the title, while delegating the position’s duties to Shwe Mann as a means of addressing the constitutional concerns.
If true, the two men’s standing vis-à-vis the party hierarchy has been poorly understood for years.
Word of some form of transfer of the role from Thein Sein to Shwe Mann first emerged in early May 2013, when Shwe Mann told reporters that he taken on the chairmanship mantle some six months early.
But Pike Htwe, the leader of the USDP’s information team, said Thursday that the president had never truly relinquished the chairmanship.
“The chair of the party, according to our registration with the Union Election Commission, is U Thein Sein,” he said.
The return of Thein Sein’s name to the top of the USDP hierarchy is likely to raise eyebrows over the constitutionally murky arrangement between the president and his party, and whether chairing the party in and of itself is inherently a “party activity.”
One party activity that Thein Sein will not be partaking of is campaigning for a parliamentary seat in the months to come, with the USDP at a press conference on Wednesday announcing that the president would not seek re-election to the legislature in a Nov. 8 vote.
That does not preclude him from harboring ambitions to serve a second term has president, however, as the Constitution does not require the president—who is chosen by lawmakers—to be a sitting parliamentarian. The president has not disclosed his intentions regarding the nation’s top civilian post.
Shwe Mann ‘Still a USDP Candidate’
According to a press conference held by USDP officials in Naypyidaw on Thursday, Shwe Mann has had his membership on the party’s central committee revoked as well, “but [he is] still the speaker of the Lower House and Union Parliament, as well as a USDP candidate for the upcoming election,” said Pike Htwe, the USDP information team leader.
Maung Maung Thein, the party’s former general secretary, was also dumped by the USDP this week, replaced by Tin Naing Thein, formerly a President’s Office minster until he resigned from that post on Wednesday.
The ruling party’s leadership reshuffle unfolded in dramatic fashion on Wednesday night, with a police contingent that was dispatched to the USDP’s Naypyidaw headquarters reportedly preventing some party members from leaving the premises.
The apparent dispute resolution tactics, which for many called to mind the preferred, forceful recourse of Burma’s former military regime, prompted a statement from the US Embassy in Rangoon on Thursday.
“While the USDP has described the incident at its headquarters as an internal party matter, we are concerned about the apparent use of state security forces to help resolve the dispute,” a US Embassy spokesperson said. “It is important that the government clarify what actions it has taken and their legal basis.
“Maintaining public trust in the democratic process will be critical throughout this election season and ultimately the transition to a new government next April that reflects the will of the people.”
Wednesday’s developments brought into public view what is believed to be a deteriorating relationship between Shwe Mann and a military establishment likely chaffed by his decision to allow a vote on proposed constitutional amendments earlier this year.
The much-maligned, military-drafted charter grants expansive political power to the Burma Armed Forces, included a guaranteed 25 percent of all seats in Parliament.
Thein Sein, for his part, served as chairman of the national convention convened to draft the Constitution, which was passed in a sham 2008 referendum.