RANGOON — A reshuffle of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) on Tuesday saw younger faces emerge at the top of Burma’s biggest opposition party, although the positions of chairman, vice-chairman and general secretary went to ex-military officers.
This signals continuity with past leadership. The party was created in 2010 out of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a mass organization under Burma’s former military junta. It provided a vehicle for retired military brass to remain in frontline politics, after the party won the 2010 general election, widely considered fraudulent.
In the new line-up, Burma’s previous president and former army general U Thein Sein was replaced as chairman with U Than Htay, a retired brigadier general in the army and former minister of rail transport and of energy. U Myat Hein, a retired air force commander and minister of communication and information technology, was made vice chairman. U Thet Naing Win, a former lieutenant general in the army, was appointed general secretary.
Ko Ye, the founder of the Tagaung Political Institute and an observer of civil-military relations in Burma, said the Tuesday reshuffle replaced an older leadership from between the ninth and 12th intakes of the Defense Service Academy—Burma’s elite officer training school based in Pyin Oo Lwin—with ex-officers from the 17th and 18th intakes.
“The USDP leadership has been taken up by people in their early 60s. U Thein Sein and other senior figures have given way to a younger generation, and are now in a position to guide the party,” he told The Irrawaddy.
According to USDP spokesperson U Khin Yi, U Thein Sein would continue to “supervise” the party as its chief “patron.” Other members of the party’s nine-member central “patrons committee” include former party vice-chairman U Htay Oo and former Upper House parliamentary speaker U Khin Aung Myint.
U Than Htay, the new party chairman and de facto leader of the opposition, left the army at the rank of brigadier general in 2003 to become deputy minister of energy, before being promoted to minister in 2011. In 2013, he became minister of rail transport and of energy. He resigned the post after U Thein Sein picked him as a USDP candidate for the 2015 general election.
Conversely, U Myat Hein and U Thet Naing Win stayed in the army until 2013 and 2015 respectively.
U Than Htay and U Myat Hein were senior to Burma’s current commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing at the Defense Services Academy, being from earlier intakes—Myat Hein from the 17th, Than Htay from the 18th and Min Aung Hlaing from the 19th.
“They are all similar in age to Min Aung Hlaing. Despite the handover to a younger generation, it’s evident that the USDP takes seriously its relationship with the military,” Ko Ye said.
Born in 1954, U Than Aye won the 2010 general election in his hometown of Myan Aung in the Irrawaddy delta, under a USDP ticket, but lost to his NLD counterpart in 2015.
During the campaign period in 2015, U Than Htay publicly criticized the NLD, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for its message, “don’t worry about the candidate, just vote for the party.”
“If someone considers themselves revered by the people, don’t pick them. If you do, you are digging your own grave,” he said during a campaign speech in Pegu Division in October.
He also said publicly that the USDP, as the ruling party since 2011, was “protecting” the Burmese people and preventing them from being “wiped from the earth,” claiming that the USDP was responsible for the Protection of Race and Religion Laws—a set of four laws, passed under sustained lobbying from ultra-nationalist groups, that place restrictions on religious conversion, interfaith marriage, polygamy, and childbirth in designated areas.
“Those criticizing us for ‘using religion in politics’ are lowly people,” he said during his campaign.