Dateline Irrawaddy: Shwe Mann ‘Could Have Done More to Build Trust’

By The Irrawaddy 30 April 2016

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the recent purge of 17 senior members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP], including Thura U Shwe Mann. Political commentator Dr. Yan Myo Thein and chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society Ko Aung Moe Zaw will join me for the discussion. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Ko Yan Myo Thein, Ko Aung Moe Zaw, as you know 17 party members including Thura U Shwe Mann were recently purged from USDP. People say that it is the sequel to the midnight purge [when Shwe Mann was removed as chairman of the then-ruling USDP last August].

The USDP contested the November election and suffered a humiliating defeat. Afterward, U Shwe Mann cooperated with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described her government as a government of national reconciliation and worked together with U Shwe Mann. Now, U Thein Sein has taken the reins of the USDP. Does the fact that U Thein Sein’s leadership has ousted U Shwe Mann suggest that the USDP is not willing to cooperate with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and, instead, wants to stand in opposition [to her government]?

Yan Myo Thein: I don’t view the purge of 17 members including U Shwe Mann as [the work of] an internal faction within the USDP. But I guess it may be a political move to push U Shwe Mann closer to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Looking at the current situation of the USDP, it experienced an overwhelming defeat in the November election. And it does not garner people’s interest. Most people are not interested in and don’t support U Shwe Mann, who is the ex-leader of the USDP. So his removal isn’t an unusual move for the USDP, I don’t think.

YN: In his statement, U Shwe Mann said that it is an intra-party issue. But he also said that it may concern the interests of the entire nation. What does he mean by this?

Aung Moe Zaw: I assume the purge is just the internal work of the USDP. I don’t think it is a big issue that will spill over and affect the entire country. Again, speaking of national reconciliation and building democracy, they [the National League for Democracy-led government] have to work toward reconciliation with the military and armed groups as well as build trust between political forces. But we have to consider carefully whether [Suu Kyi’s cooperation] with U Shwe Mann should really be viewed as a national reconciliation effort. As Ko Yan Myo Thein said, the USDP is not a strong opposition party, based on the election results, though I don’t know how strong it is in terms of the size of its network, including businesses and assets. Still, it’s not a strong party. Today, the party is not in a position to shake up the country politically. The purge was just a normal intra-party issue, I’d say.

YN: It’s fair to say that the USDP is a rich party, considering its possessions nationwide. But if this faction results in a conflict of interest regarding the party’s possessions, can this lead to a situation that can harm the interests of the country, as Thura U Shwe Mann said?

YMT: If the USDP has ousted U Shwe Mann and other members in line with party rules and regulations, it’s just an intra-party issue that was handled accordingly. The party’s possessions are another problem. To understand this, we need to go back to the time when the party was a social organization [the Union Solidarity and Development Association]. That association was heavily backed by Burma’s previous governments. It grew thanks to this support and was transformed into a political party just prior to the election in 2010. No one knows exactly how the possessions were transferred when the association was transformed into a political party. If U Shwe Mann can show that this issue could have larger implications for the rest of the country, then more people would surely be interested.

YN: There is also speculation that U Shwe Mann will establish a party of his own. If he does this, how would he ask for his share of [the USDP’s] possessions, including the party’s flags, emblems and so on, within the existing legal framework?

AMZ: It depends on the Union Election Commission [UEC]. As far as I understand, it was U Thein Sein who signed the registration as chairman when the party was registered with UEC. And it’s not like the party split in two and that U Shwe Mann left with a large number of followers when he was ousted. And they were removed in accord with party’s rules and regulations. So, they [Shwe Mann’s faction] have little legitimacy to appeal to the UEC, I think. If he wants to set up a party, he has to do it himself. Some of his followers from the USDP and his outside supporters may join a new party. But it would be difficult for him to claim the party’s possessions and flags and emblems.

YN: Another interesting thing is that the USDP is now back under the leadership of U Thein Sein. Do you think the party will be a major opposition to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government?

YMT: At present, there are only around 40 lawmakers from the USDP in Parliament, which is less than 10 percent of total lawmakers in Parliament. I find no reason to believe that the USDP will become a strong opposition in Parliament with such small numbers. No way! Moreover, they don’t t have the support and trust of the people. It’s strong neither inside nor outside Parliament. So how can it become a strong opposition? There’s little chance of this happening. Still, they are very financially strong and may have a strong network of contacts because of the role they have played in the past. If they take advantage of that, then they could enter and engage with civil society through the guise of extra-parliamentary politics. Anyway, I don’t think at all that the USDP will gain strong public support in the next five years.

YN: What is your view, Ko Aung Moe Zaw?

AMZ: The more democratically transparent our country becomes, and the faster our country’s transition becomes and the more our country meets democratic norms, the faster ex-authoritarians and their associates will fade away. The 2015 election clearly showed that people do not want them at all.

YN: Let’s go back to U Shwe Mann. Many believe that U Shwe Mann was purged from the USDP because he chose to work together with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with the USDP accusing him of betraying the party. Under such circumstances, what advice do you think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would give him? He’s done a lot to help Daw Aung San Suu Kyi achieve many of today’s successes.

YMT: Personally, I don’t think most people are interested in the purge of U Shwe Mann and other members of the USDP, though the media and educated people may be interested in the issue. In my view, we need to assess whether the cooperation between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Shwe Mann has really served the purposes of national reconciliation and democratic reform for the country. As Ko Aung Moe Zaw said, there are many different entities that should be involved with reconciliation. For example, until 2010, [the NLD] failed to build understanding and trust with political alliances it had previously worked shoulder to shoulder with. Only after 2012 did it try to build these relationships. We need to think about whether this is really a step toward national reconciliation.

Again, U Shwe Mann served as the third-highest official in the military [junta]. If he had been dedicated to national reconciliation, he could have done a lot more by now to build trust between democratic forces and the military as well as between ethnic armed groups and the military. Looking at his actions over the past three, four years, I don’t find them satisfactory at all. The country and people have not gotten benefits from [Shwe Mann’s] cooperation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but U Shwe Mann has gotten [them].

YN: Ko Yan Myo Thein, Ko Aung Moe Zaw, thank you for your contribution.