Mann with a Mission? Burma’s Speaker Well Poised for Presidency

By Ye Ni 15 July 2015

YANGON — With Myanmar’s national elections less than six months away, the million dollar question is: Who will be the next leader of the country?

At the fourth central committee meeting of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) held in Naypyitaw in May, it was announced that Union Parliament Speaker U Shwe Mann would remain at the helm as chairman, leading the party into the elections slated for November.

It seems that U Shwe Mann, who has openly declared his interest in the presidency, has grown in confidence after visits to the United States and China in April. What strategies will the third most powerful general of the former regime employ in his bid for the presidency? We will have to wait and see.

The political intentions of incumbent president U Thein Sein remain a mystery. Although he has not stated whether he would seek a second term, in his monthly radio address in May, in reference to the peace process, the president said his administration intended to leave a strong foundation for the next government to build upon.

Does this imply he won’t run for reelection? If so, it could signal an end to the internal tug of war between the president and the parliamentary speaker, paving the way for the latter to run for the country’s top job.

But the road to the presidency is far from straightforward for U Shwe Mann, with the majority of political pundits predicting that the USDP is heading for a humiliating defeat if the forthcoming elections are free and fair.

Shadowy Past

The forerunner of the USDP, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), was founded in 1993 on the instructions of former Snr-Gen Than Shwe. The USDA engaged in activities suppressing the pro-democracy movement of which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was the most recognizable face since 1988.

In 1997, she branded USDA members thugs. Six years later, her motorcade was attacked by a pro-junta armed group, including members of the USDA and hired heavies from Swan Arshin, at Depayin in Sagaing Region.

The reputation of the USDA went from bad to worse when its members were again implicated in the regime’s violent crackdown on Saffron Revolution protesters in 2007. The organization then transformed itself into a political party—the USDP—in 2010 to contest that year’s general elections.

After the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted the polls, the USDP won in a landslide—a result discredited by reports of widespread electoral irregularities.

Despite some important reforms, the ruling USDP and the quasi-civilian executive have protected the common interests of the army and their cronies while students, activists, farmers and workers continue to be imprisoned simply for peacefully expressing dissent.

But even with a tainted image, the USDP does retain some electoral advantages. The party is financially strong and its network stretches across the country. It is familiar with the bureaucracy and can lay claim to a degree of “experience” in governance, in contrast to the NLD.

However, whether this translates to a U Shwe Mann-presidency depends greatly on opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Two to Tango

U Shwe Mann maintained a healthy political relationship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi throughout 2014 and has been smoothing the way for an unlikely coalition between the two major parties. During his recent visit to the United States, the parliamentary speaker said he was willing to cooperate with the NLD leader.

Under Article 59(f) of the 2008 Constitution, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency, even if the NLD wins the elections. On this highly contentious issue, U Shwe Mann has sent mixed messages.

In 2014, he said the charter should be amended to allow the NLD leader to run for the country’s highest office. However, he has since spoken of the impossibility of amending the Constitution before the election.

For her part, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi refused to rule out boycotting the elections in an apparent attempt to pressure the government on constitutional change. However, this would seem an unlikely move given the opposition leader would still wield significant influence in the legislative chamber if the NLD claimed an expected electoral majority.

If so, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may be willing to countenance a U Shwe Mann presidency.

While detractors may view her support of a former general as disloyal to supporters of the NLD and the broader democracy movement, others could see such a compromise as paving the way for constitutional change at a later date, including Article 59(f).

The Military Factor

Myanmar Army chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, has urged for loyalty to the 2008 Constitution in its current form. This is a solid indication that the military will not easily relinquish its formidable political role.

The Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs ministers are all army appointees and 25 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who is said to be a confidante of Snr-Gen Than Shwe, is due to retire soon and rumors have swirled that he may throw his hat in the ring for the country’s presidency.

If so, he would likely enjoy the backing of those military representatives constitutionally enshrined in the new post-elections Parliament. However, these votes alone would not be enough. He would also need the support of other lawmakers, including from ethnic political parties.

Before the election, the commander-in-chief may need to form a political alliance. It is doubtful that he could persuade the NLD or many ethnic political parties in regions subject to decades of human rights abuses at the hands of the Myanmar Army.

Could he win the backing of the USDP?

The once-accepted unity between the USDP and the military is on the wane. The USDP under U Shwe Mann appears to be edging away from the army and is transforming itself into a more independent political party. It no longer wishes to be identified as a party stacked with generals-turned-MPs.

“We won’t just field army men,” said USDP General Secretary U Thein Swe at a press conference on May 31. “We’ll field those who have the potential for victory in [constituencies] where we can win. It is up to us whether or not to accept [candidates], no matter how many the army sends us.”

President U Shwe Mann?

While the USDP may profess to keep its distance from the military, its leadership, ex-generals themselves, understands the army’s concerns and will be careful to manage any tensions.

On a recent visit to meet wounded Myanmar Army soldiers in a military hospital in Shan State’s Lashio, U Shwe Mann threw his support behind the army, describing their fight against Kokang rebels as “a fight for justice.”

U Shwe Mann, who was the former chief of staff of the army, navy and air force, seems convinced he can keep the military onside while pushing ahead with reforms in cooperation with the NLD, ethnic and other lawmakers through the coming elections.

Critics point out that a U Shwe Mann presidency would be a victory for the status quo, where a handful of cronies and military associates enjoy government protection and rewards.

However he is viewed, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi currently ineligible for the country’s presidency, U Shwe Mann may have one hand on the top job.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.