USDP Finds It’s Not Easy Shedding Its Reputation as ‘Party of Thieves’

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 28 February 2019

YANGON—Taking to Facebook Live to broadcast a press conference at which they insisted they are not opposed to constitutional reform, officials from Myanmar’s formerly ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) discovered to their irritation last week that viewers weren’t all that interested in what they had to say. To the party’s embarrassment, many viewers appeared far more interested in posting unkind comments—like “Thieves!” or “The party of kleptocrats!”—during the live broadcast.

The USDP evolved out of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, an organization established by the military regime in the 1990s. In 2010 many generals resigned and joined the USDP to contest that year’s elections, which it won. The party ruled the country until March 2016, before handing over power to the incoming NLD government.

During its time in office, the party rarely enjoyed popular support; in many people’s eyes, its members, including those serving in the government, were nothing but military officials in business suits. People complained about their misuse of power, funds and state assets, including the shadowy leasing of 66 plots of land—including factories, fish ponds and farms—owned by the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development by the state-owned Myanmar International Cooperation Agency. The agency was run by former Union ministers U Soe Thane and U Ohn Myint.

At Saturday’s press conference, one of the party’s spokespersons, U Thein Tun Oo, hit back at the accusations of kleptocracy, saying the claim did not originate with the public but was started by an unnamed “organization”.

But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Here are some fresh examples:

When the USDP left office in 2016, more than 15 billion kyats (nearly US$10 million at the current rate) in regional development funds handled by the governments of Magwe, Mandalay and Irrawaddy regions from 2012 to 2016 were unaccounted for.

In Magwe Region in upper Myanmar, the Bureau of Special Investigations found that ex-Chief Minister U Phone Maw Shwe was responsible for 7.5 billion kyats that had gone missing from the region’s development funds while he was in office (including over 1.7 billion kyats that had been designated for the USDP itself). Until the issue was raised in the regional parliament in May 2016, the chief minister was also the chairman of the Magwe Region’s USDP branch.

In Mandalay, the regional auditor general’s office discovered in 2017 that more than 3 billion kyats (US$2.1 million) from the regional development fund under the previous government had gone missing. The then chief minister was U Ye Myint, who was also Mandalay’s USDP regional chairman.

In Irrawaddy Region, meanwhile, then Chief Minister U Thein Aung, who was also the chair of the regional USDP, failed to hand over regional development funds to the new NLD government in 2016, according to the Auditor-General’s Office. Rather, he transferred the funds to a new foundation of which he was the patron.

In all of these cases, it’s evident that the former chief ministers failed to transfer regional funds to the incoming NLD government before they left office. The three former USDP chiefs of Magwe, Mandalay and Irrawaddy eventually agreed to pay the money back in separate payments, but only after their embezzlement was brought to light of the day, bringing lawsuit threats from the current government.

U Kyee Myint of the Myanmar Lawyers Network told The Irrawaddy that people called the USDP “thieves” for a valid reason. “They used or squirrelled away development funds. That’s why people say this. You can’t say their claims are baseless,” the lawyer said.

On Thursday, spokesperson U Thein Tun Oo, who had denied the USDP was a party of thieves, was not available for comment.

Meanwhile, the three former chief ministers of Magwe, Mandalay and Irrawaddy are no longer the leaders of their respective local chapters and no longer active in the party’s current activities, another USDP spokesperson, U Aung Cho Oo, told The Irrawaddy.

“But they have been central advisers to the USDP since the party convention in August 2016, and they are still party members,” the spokesperson added.