Analysis

How Myanmar Junta Chief Plays Military Proxy Party for His Presidency

By The Irrawaddy 20 June 2022

The military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) held its central executive committee (CEC) meeting last week, which ended with a rift over the party’s future leadership. The party is expected to announce new leadership at the party’s conference to be held soon. 

Last week’s CEC meeting saw the USDP divided into two camps — one which wants to bring down party chairman U Than Htay and the other loyal to him. The group seeking to oust U Than Htay is stronger and is believed to be backed by junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, according to CEC members. 

The five year term of the party’s current CEC ended last August, but U Than Htay cited the COVID-19 outbreak and political situation as reasons to cancel the 2021 party conference. However, many USDP members saw that as just an excuse for U Than Htay to retain his position as party chair in the wake of the USDP’s resounding defeat in the 2020 general election. 

Those seeking to remove U Than Htay believe that, at the very least, he hopes to be appointed vice chair of the USDP after the regime’s proposed election next year.

U Than Htay’s leadership threatened 

The USDP’s most important meeting is the party conference which elects the CEC, whose term runs for five years. The CEC elects the chair, vice chairs and secretaries of the party. 

U Than Htay (center) at the recent USDP CEC meeting in Naypyitaw. / USDP Facebook

After the party conference, the CEC meeting is the highest-level meeting of the USDP, although it only has the power to fill vacant positions on the CEC. 

At the USDP’s CEC meeting on June 8-9, U Than Htay attempted to extend his term as chair of the party for another five years without confirmation from the party conference. However, the USDP group opposed to that, reportedly supported by Min Aung Hlaing, objected and U Than Htay was forced to promise that a party conference will be held soon.

If he insists on extending his term without convening a party conference, U Than Htay will follow in the footsteps of Thura Shwe Mann who was purged in a power struggle with former President U Thein Sein, said one CEC member who wished to remain anonymous.

The same member said that U Than Htay appeared unhappy as he delivered the opening address at the CEC meeting, and that his address was like a farewell speech.

Junta chief operating behind the scenes 

Min Aung Hlaing’s dream of becoming president of Myanmar is an open secret. With the Myanmar military guaranteed 25 per cent of all seats in the national legislature under the army-drafted 2008 constitution, it is not unrealistic for him to dream of becoming president. However, in the 2020 general election the USDP failed to win the 26 per cent of votes which would have enabled it to form a government, forcing Min Aung Hlaing to stage his coup in February last year. 

Now, after annulling the results of the 2020 poll, Min Aung Hlaing is planning for an election next year. He may already have someone in mind to succeed him as military chief after the election. At the same time, he wants to pick someone he trusts as the next USDP chair, as the party will play a crucial role if he is to achieve his presidency dream.

U Than Htay was handpicked as USDP chair by former dictator Senior General Than Shwe, which makes it hard for Min Aung Hlaing to purge him personally. He was rewarded with the party chair after exposing the plan by the late dictator Ne Win’s grandsons to stage a coup. 

Myanmar junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

 

Than Shwe still provides advice to the USDP, although CEC members do not believe that he interferes in the party’s administration. 

Former agriculture and irrigation minister U Myint Hlaing, who is infamous in Myanmar as ‘One Meal’ Myint Hlaing for asking farmers to skip a meal each day in order to repay their agricultural loans to the government, has recently reached out to Than Shwe, said a CEC member. 

“Ko Myint Hlaing was involved in purging [former military spy chief] General Khin Nyunt. So the [former] Senior General trusts him,” said the CEC member. 

Meanwhile, Min Aung Hlaing is trying to control the party through his henchmen, said another CEC member. 

Min Aung Hlaing has not spoken a word about the USDP since the coup. USDP leaders have also told local media that they are yet to meet the coup leader in person. “It appears that [Min Aung Hlaing] controls the party through U Khin Yi and U Thaung Aye,” said a CEC member. 

U Khin Yi is a USDP vice chair, as well as the immigration minister in Min Aung Hlaing’s regime. U Thaung Aye is a CEC member and former lieutenant general and MP. He is expected to be promoted in the party hierarchy at the upcoming USDP conference. 

Critics of U Than Htay  

“There can’t be a shining party under poor leadership,” wrote U Maung Myint before the CEC meeting. U Maung Myint, a native of Sagaing Region’s Mingin Township, acted as industry minister in U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration.

Also opposed to U Than Htay is U Hla Swe, better known as Bullet Hla Swe, a former lieutenant colonel and Upper House lawmaker. At the recent CEC meeting, he made an official call for the USDP conference to be convened. But neither U Hla Swe nor U Maung Myint are expected to be candidates for USDP chair. 

U Myint Hlaing is another senior critic of U Than Htay and since succeeding former defence minister General Wai Lwin as the chief of the Naypyitaw USDP, he has effectively consolidated his control in the party. He was known as a hardliner during his time in U Thein Sein’s administration. 

U Thaung Aye, a USDP CEC member, former lieutenant general and MP.

Another prominent opponent of U Htan Thay is U Thaung Aye, who is regarded as a shrewd man who goes by the book and is close to Min Aung Hlaing. He is thought to be the most likely candidate to replace U Than Htay as USDP chair.

Min Aung Hlaing doubts that U Than Htay has capacity to win the 26 per cent of parliamentary seats the USDP needs to win so he can become president, said a former USDP lawmaker. Min Aung Hlaing is also angry with U Than Htay over remarks he has made, said a party member. 

“The party is dominated by former military personnel who contest elections on the USDP ticket. But U Than Htay said that the USDP and military are not related at all. Of course, Min Aung Hlaing was not happy with that,” said the party member. 

The USDP and the 2023 election

The USDP leadership can exepct to assume senior positions, including the vice president, parliament speakers and union ministers, if the military regime can win the election next year by excluding the National League for Democracy Party from contesting it. The current senior leadership are eyeing cabinet positions in 2023. 

Many of Than Shwe’s proteges remain in the USDP, according to photos released by the party. Vice-chair U Khin Yin, former finance and revenues minister U Hla Tun and former air force chief U Myat Hein are all confidants of Than Shwe. 

Other CEC members also served as ministers in Than Shwe’s regime including U Thein Zaw, U Thein Aung, U Soe Thane, U Myint Hlaing, U Nyan Win, U Nyan Tun, and U Nyan Tun Aung, all of whom are senior to Min Aung Hlaing. 

However, CEC members believe that the junta chief will look to people junior to him to become the next USDP chair, with the former lieutenant general U Thaung Aye thought to be Min Aung Hlaing’s pick to smooth his road to the presidency. 

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