The Target Is Now Shwe Mann

By The Irrawaddy 26 April 2016

The political temperature is rising again. This time the target is Shwe Mann, a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi and head of the Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues within the Union Parliament.

On April 22, 17 key members including Shwe Mann were reportedly expelled from the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP).

The move may not have been lawful, Shwe Mann said.

“I think people, including USDP members and relevant authorities, need to look over whether the action by some USDP top members towards me and the commission members is in accordance with the existing laws and rules,” he explained.

USDP officials insisted that Shwe Mann and the other members who were sacked—many of whom also serve on the Commission—had violated the party’s charter. But Shwe Mann’s faction will not go quietly: the showdown is now unfolding in the open.

Shwe Mann once served as the third highest-ranking general in Burma’s former military regime and as the joint chief of staff of the army, navy and air force. He had supporters within the armed forces, and several former regional commanders and generals are now thought to be in his camp.

Recently, Shwe Mann—a graduate of the Defence Services Academy’s 11th intake—commemorated the 47th anniversary of his graduation and met with his former colleagues, along with Suu Kyi.

On this occasion, the former general issued a statement widely circulated on social media, urging his colleagues to work for the country’s new elected government.

Two days later, the army’s information department responded by calling the statement an attempt to divide the armed forces. Shwe Mann, they suggested, was implying that the Tatmadaw—the state military—had not worked in the interest of the people or the country since Burma’s independence.

This reaction illustrates the depth of the fissure between him and the current leadership of the armed forces.

Shwe Mann’s expulsion from the USDP came after news of former president Thein Sein’s return to the party, who served in the monkhood for only five days before re-entering politics as the USDP chairman. A photo of the ex-leader, head shaved, holding what appeared to be glasses of wine, was shared widely on social media last week.

One of Shwe Mann’s key allies, Zaw Myint Pe, was also reportedly among those who were dismissed from the party. He described the USDP as “dictatorial” and said that he believed the mass expulsion was, in fact, ordered by Thein Sein.

The rivalry between Thein Sein and Shwe Mann became public in 2012 while Shwe Mann was serving as house speaker within Parliament. Increasingly, he was perceived by other USDP members as sympathetic to the struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and as an advocate for constitutional reform—stances which contrast sharply with military interests.

The conflict between the two men escalated as they formed powerful alliances: Thein Sein with armed forces commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, and Shwe Mann with Suu Kyi.

The soft-spoken military general remained popular despite attempts to remove him from leadership. But the internal rift within the USDP intensified in 2015: Shwe Mann faced impeachment from within the Parliament, government scrutiny of his family business and surveillance over two of his sons.

In August 2015, about 400 police raided the USDP headquarters and removed Shwe Mann from party chairmanship. It appeared that the armed forces had ordered the raid—no doubt a palace coup.

Before the incident, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing was known to have sent a three-page letter to Shwe Mann expressing his dissatisfaction with the chairman’s political positions. Political observers also noted that the commander-in-chief’s speeches frequently mentioned “those who betrayed the country,” a slur believed to have been directed at Shwe Mann.

Under the former regime, such a removal—and subsequent purge—would have had a lasting impact on Shwe Mann’s family and his allies, and likely would have resulted in a lengthy prison sentence for Shwe Mann himself.

Yet within two weeks, he was back in action, suggesting that though the Parliament and existing institutions are fragile, they had protected Shwe Mann and his supporters from the wrath of the USDP and the armed forces.

After learning of Shwe Mann’s dismissal, Suu Kyi said that the move had made it clear “who was the enemy and who was the ally,” adding that her party—the National League for Democracy (NLD)—would work with the “ally.”

Thein Sein’s faction within the USDP could not remove Shwe Mann as they had wished.

Since the ousting nearly one year ago, Shwe Mann’s association with and support for Suu Kyi has grown visibly. Until the recent dismissal, his official standing within the USDP had remained unknown.

Shwe Mann’s enemies are now regrouping in an attempt to target his political support base, but it appears that he is now in an even stronger position, allied not only with the leading NLD but also with its widely supported figurehead, Suu Kyi. Shwe Mann’s key allies are now sitting in the Parliament and the Cabinet.

It will be interesting to witness how, and with what strategies, he will fight back against the odds.