Do Myanmar’s Generals-Turned-Politicians Have a Plan B for the Presidency?

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 23 August 2019

Before he voluntarily retired in 2011, Senior General Than Shwe, the chief of Myanmar’s then-ruling junta, laid out a master plan for the country’s immediate political future. Today, he must be less than satisfied, as that plan has yet to be realized. Do his former generals and the current military leadership have a “Plan B” for next year’s general election?

Back then, Snr-Gen Than Shwe told a small group of his top generals about his plan for the presidency: “The first term [2011-2016] is for Ko Thein Sein. The second term [2016-2021] is for Ko Shwe Mann.” That was the rough scheme the senior general mapped out, covering at least the next decade, for a pair of his generals, General Thein Sein and General Shwe Mann, before stepping down along with his deputy, Vice Senior-General Maung Aye. And he seemed to believe it would be implemented without any hiccups.

To ensure that his plan was realized, Snr-Gen Than Shwe asked his top generals to work with unity.

Just before the 2010 elections, three generals retired from the military in order to contest the vote in their constituencies representing the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which had recently been set up by the military. Gen Thein Sein was selected as chairman of the party, shedding his rank to hold the post as U Thein Sein. As expected, the election was boycotted by some of the main political parties, including the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Unsurprisingly, the USDP won.

The distribution of power in March 2011, when Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s regime handed over the reins to the new “civilian” government, saw U Thein Sein become president; U Tin Aung Myint Oo first vice president; and U Shwe Mann speaker of the Lower House of Parliament.

The plan demonstrates that Sen-Gen Than Shwe’s vision for the country’s political order extended beyond the 2008 Constitution’s guarantee of a continued significant political role for the military, and included at least two consecutive presidential terms for his generals.

During my recent trip to Naypyitaw, a retired general recalled the plan, admitting that neither it nor the former junta chief’s wish that the generals would remain united has been fully realized.

Even in the plan’s early phase, during the tenure of his hand-picked President U Thein Sein, relations between the former generals began to sour as they set about running their first “civilian” government.

The first crack appeared just over one year into the new administration. First Vice President U Tin Aung Myint Oo resigned from his position amid rumored disagreements with the president. U Tin Aung Myint Oo was seen as a hardliner who was not fully on board with President U Thein Sein’s reform process.

The second crack formed between the president and House Speaker U Shwe Mann. The latter obviously had his eyes on the country’s top position after the 2015 elections, doubtless keeping in mind Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s earlier verbal assurances.

At that time, U Shwe Mann was serving as acting chairman of the USDP, because as Union president U Thein Sein was constitutionally barred from active party duties. In accordance with the party’s structure, U Shwe Mann was thus also positioned as U Thein Sein’s successor. Given these two factors, it seems legitimate that U Shwe Mann should have expected to assume the country’s top position.

But as time passed, he seemed to grow doubtful that U Thein Sein, his former fellow general, would make way for him. In July 2015, the spokesperson for the President’s Office told the media that President U Thein Sein “has already said several times that he will decide [whether to seek a second term] based on the desire of the people and the country’s political situation. If the people need him, he will seek a second term.”

In fact, the public began to notice the cracks between U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and some other NLD members won seats in the April 2012 by-election and joined the Union and state/regional parliaments in July.

At this time, U Shwe Mann became close to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and they forged an unlikely political alliance. Their cozy relationship caused U Shwe Mann to be regarded as a “traitor” by U Thein Sein’s clique and the military leaders.

In mid-August 2015, the tension came to a head with a midnight coup within the ruling party. On that night, the USDP’s headquarters in Naypyitaw was raided by the police and leading members of the party. It was believed the military fully backed the plan and it seemed to have the approval of former junta chief Sen Gen Than Shwe himself. U Shwe Mann was immediately purged from the party and some associates of U Shwe Mann lost their jobs in reshuffles of the cabinet and the military. U Thein Sein appointed U Htay Oo, another former military officer, as joint chairman of the party.

Then President U Thein Sein (right) and Parliament Speaker U Shwe Mann arrive at the Union Parliament in Naypyitaw on Jan. 28, 2016. / REUTERS

In their power struggle over the presidency, U Thein Sein had resoundingly defeated U Shwe Mann. What neither man realized was that soon both would be losers.

The outcome of the battle between U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann became a moot point after the 2015 election, the result of which defied all expectations. The political conflict within the USDP was based on the faulty assumption that the party would win the 2015 poll, giving it the power to select the president. Like other ex-military officers, they seemed to lack the ability to read the mood of the general public. When the ballots were counted, the NLD had won 77 percent of the 1,150 constituencies across the country; the USDP just 10 percent.

The election dealt a major blow to Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s plan of having one of his generals run the government while the military safeguarded its 2008 Constitution in the parliaments. With the NLD’s victory, which saw it assume the presidency in March 2016, neither U Thein Sein nor U Shwe Mann was president.

Snr-Gen Than Shwe was reportedly very upset at the election result, as he had been assured of victory by USDP leaders, especially joint chairman U Htay Oo.

The question now is whether the former generals and their allied parties, including the USDP, and the military as a whole, have a “Plan B” to retake the presidency at the upcoming elections in 2020.

It seems they have been trying, though it can hardly be described as a unified effort.

The USDP led by former military officials has made alliances with many political parties in recent years. There are 26 of these parties, all of which have distanced themselves from the NLD. Some of them are ethnic parties.

And in recent months, two more parties were formed by ex-generals. One, the Union Betterment Party, was formed by U Shwe Mann; another, the Democratic Party of National Politics, was formed by other ex-generals.

As the main opposition bloc, the USDP, now led by U Than Htay, a former military officer and minister in U Thein Sein’s government—will be more aggressive than other parties in trying to unseat the NLD in the upcoming election. Assured of the support of the military appointees who hold 25 percent of the seats in the parliaments, the USDP only needs to win a bit more than 25 percent of parliamentary seats to be able to form a government and retake the presidency.

The prospect of another NLD victory in 2020 is a nightmare for the military and the USDP, as it would embolden the NLD in its push to amend the Constitution to minimize the role of the military in politics, and there would be no significant place in the government for the USDP, either.

Thus, it seems reasonable to expect that the USDP and the military will give their former boss’s plan another shot.

How likely are they to succeed? Well…there are some reasons for them to be encouraged.

We all have seen the news, and the speculation: the NLD’s popularity has declined; the NLD’s capacity to govern has been called into question; fighting between the army and ethnic armed groups has only intensified under this government; the peace process is dead; the economy is in bad shape and the general economic outlook poor; and the list goes on.

Is all of this reason to celebrate for the USDP? I don’t think so. Bad news for the NLD does not translate directly into good news for the USDP.

History clearly shows that a majority of Myanmar people don’t support political parties associated with the military. The National Unity Party (NUP), which succeeded dictator Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party after 1988 with the support of the military, won only 10 seats in the 1990 election, in which the NLD won more than 80 percent of votes. Twenty-five years later, in the 2015 election, the NUP won one seat.

The USDP is not much different from the NUP. In the 2015 election, which was considered largely free and fair, the USDP won 41 of the 498 contested seats in both chambers of Parliament, compared to the NLD’s 390. (These figures exclude the 166 uncontested seats given to the military.)

If you ask my prediction for the USDP, I will repeat what I wrote two months before the 2015 elections. The theme of that story was that the then-ruling party was highly unlikely to win the election, assuming it was free and fair. I stressed that the party’s only route to electoral success would be vote rigging. The same holds true for the upcoming poll in 2020.

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