The Myanmar military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) held its central executive committee meeting at its headquarters in the capital Naypyitaw on Monday and Tuesday this week, but did not issue a press release about the gathering.
The meeting was preparation for the party’s June conference, when a new party leadership will be elected for the next five years, USDP spokesperson U Nanda Hla Myint told the BBC in an exclusive interview. The new five-year term will cover the post-election period of the regime’s planned poll and that of the new administration that will take power after it.
Junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is planning to hold a general election next year, after cancelling the results of the 2020 poll which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. It is highly likely that the NLD will be excluded from the 2023 election, should it happen as planned. With Min Aung Hlaing eyeing the presidency, a position he has long coveted, USDP leaders might also be dreaming about being appointed to other top political positions such as the vice-presidency, parliamentary speaker and Union ministers.
Will the USDP’s new leadership be as much of a surprise as it was in 2016?
The USDP has publicly supported last year’s coup. Party chairman U Than Htay said that over 1,500 party members and supporters have been killed by anti-regime forces since the military takeover, which means that three to four USDP members and supporters have died daily since the coup.
USDP members from across the country are now sheltering at the party headquarters in Naypyitaw, and the regime has also provided security for them.
Before the Thingyan Water Festival which marks Myanmar’s New Year in April, the party erected an obelisk in memory of those killed.
The new leadership for next five years will be elected in a building near the obelisk. In 2016, following the USDP’s resounding defeat to the NLD in the 2015 general election, U Than Htay replaced former President U Thein Sein as USDP chief. That was an entirely unexpected move and observers are waiting to see if there will be similarly unexpected promotions this time around.
Than Shwe’s man has an uncertain future
U Than Htay previously served as a Brigadier General in the military and was Minister for Energy and Minister for Rail Transportation in U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government.
He was selected as USDP chief over more senior army figures, even after he lost his parliamentary seat representing his home township of Myanaung in Ayeyarwady Region in the 2015 general election.
But he did do something special for former military dictator Senior General Than Shwe. He told him about how the grandsons of late military dictator Ne Win were planning to stage a coup.
That earned U Than Htay the gratitude of Than Shwe. It is an open secret in the USDP that Than Shwe was behind U Than Htay’s sudden rise to prominence, despite his relatively low military rank and lack of leadership skills.
In an exclusive interview with the BBC published on May 11, U Than Htay admitted that he had met both Than Shwe and U Thein Sein after the 2021 coup.
U Than Htay might not want to step down after leading the USDP through difficult times, especially as the 2023 election offers the prospect of better days for the party, assuming it is in fact held.
But there is considerable uncertainty about U Than Htay’s future, as coup leader Min Aung Hlaing is not believed to be close to him.
USDP leadership election crucial ahead of 2023 general election
Since the coup, the party has elected party leaders at the township, region and state levels, according to the USDP’s official Facebook page.
The central executive committee totals 350 people: 275 members and 75 auxiliary members.
At the very top, the committee is dominated by ex-military personnel and former ministers, who can be elected to the party leadership in line with party regulations.
At the end of last year, those old guard members were asked if they wished to stay in the party or resign. This question was not asked at a party meeting, but in letters sent to their homes.
Some former generals were angry after receiving the letters, as they viewed them as disrespectful.
Next month’s party leadership election is especially crucial as the 2023 general election is set to use a proportional representation system, which means that party members will be allocated seats rather than having to stand directly for them. And despite the fact that the USDP leaders do not get on well with Min Aung Hlaing, it is likely that USDP leaders will be allocated the majority of seats in parliament after the 2023 election.
However, despite the introduction of proportional representation, the USDP leadership is uneasy that the regime has not yet dissolved the NLD, because the USDP has lost every election it has contested with the NLD.
Fighting cocks versus farm chickens
The NLD did not contest the 2010 general election and, with Than Shwe keeping Daw Aung Suu Kyi under house arrest, that ensured a USDP victory. Nevertheless, many observers believed that the USDP was only able to win almost 80 per cent of parliamentary seats with the help of vote-rigging by the Union Election Commission (UEC).
The junta-appointed head of the UEC for the 2023 election is U Thein Soe, a former Major General who also oversaw the 2010 election. The USDP will not want a repeat of the 2015 and 2020 elections, which saw the party trounced by the NLD.
In fact, the USDP only needs to win 26 per cent of seats to form a government as the army-drafted 2008 constitution reserves 25 per cent of all parliamentary seats for members of the military.
Some generals regard the USDP’s performance in elections as disappointing. One former general described the NLD as a fighting cock and the USDP as a farm chicken only good for broiling.
“The mommy’s [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] sons from the NLD are hard workers. But those guys [USDP members] are broilers. They only know how to eat and sleep,” said the former general.
Even with a proportional representation system in place, the NLD would still beat the USDP if it contests the next election.
“If the USDP was useful, there would be no need for the military to stage a coup at the cost of its reputation,” said the former general.
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