Guest Column

Thein Sein and his Estranged USDP

By Min Zin 1 November 2012

Burma’s pseudo-civilian president, Thein Sein, held his first press conference for local media last week, after he was re-elected last week as the chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP took about 80 percent of the seats in the 2010 elections that critics have condemned as a farce.

Thein Sein avoided breaking any news, and gave broadly worded answers about the ongoing war in Kachin State, the highly anticipated foreign investment law, the possibility of US-Burma military relations, and so forth. One of the answers that struck me, however, touched upon his relationship with the USDP.

Asked if he will urge his party’s parliamentarians to amend the country’s Constitution, Thein Sein responded: “As the Constitution prohibits the president from taking part in [their] party’s activities during his term of office, I can’t go and urge them what to do. The constitutional amendment issue depends not only on the parliamentarians of the USDP but also on other parties.”

Essentially he dodged the question, but his answer has interesting political implications. There are three issues which should be highlighted as important.

Firstly, viewed according to the 2008 Constitution, the unanimous re-election of Thein Sein as a chairman of the USDP on October 16 was unconstitutional. The director of the President’s Office defended the re-election of his boss as the head of the USDP as “in line with the Constitution,” so long as Thein Sein is “not involved in the party function.”

But this is a pretty lame defense. How can anyone possibly say that the president attending the USDP’s annual conference was not also participating in the party’s activities? Thein Sein was there greeting hundreds of delegates and giving speeches. He did not just stop by and say hi to folks on his way home from the neighborhood gym.

Secondly, Thein Sein’s answer at the press conference revised the much-hyped public relations message of his recent interview with BBC’s Hardtalk. Thein Sein said that he “would accept” Aung San Suu Kyi as president if the people accept her.

But the Constitution bars Suu Kyi from seeking the presidential nomination, since the candidate can neither be a foreign citizen nor have parents, legitimate children or a spouse who hold foreign citizenship. Suu Kyi was married to a British academic and has two sons who hold British citizenship.

In his Hardtalk interview, however, Thein Sein implied that he would not mind seeing her as president. There is no doubt that the interview has triggered waves of hope (most likely false) among observers and the general public in Burma.

Even Suu Kyi weighed in to respond to Thein Sein’s remark. In a press conference, she declared that she is willing to lead the country as president and that her party will work to amend the Constitution that blocks her from the position.

Amending any of these provisions, however, requires the approval of more than 75 percent of Parliament as well as a national referendum. Since the military has 25 percent of seats reserved in the legislature, there is no way for to Suu Kyi to change the conditions without military approval even if her party won all the available 75 percent of seats in the upcoming 2015 election.

Currently her party only represents less than seve percent of Parliament. Thus Suu Kyi seemed to be expecting the president to use his influence to make the necessary constitutional changes. But now, in his answer to a local journalist’s question, Thein Sein has changed his previous message, refused to take any initiative and passed the buck back to “the people.”

The third significant implication of Thein Sein’s reference to constitutional provisions disassociating him from his party is that it explains why the former general has managed to pursue ongoing liberalizing reforms.

Those who are elected president or are given cabinet positions are not officially accountable to the USDP. They don’t have to feel direct constraints imposed by the ruling party. They don’t need to follow the USDP agenda. They are not implementing party policy.

This is significant because the USDP is much more conservative than Thein Sein and his team. The USDP, correctly foreseeing that the Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party would do well in the 2012 by-elections, had opposed holding them.

It also pushed to amend the Constitution to allow executive officials, most of whom were USDP members, to retain their party affiliation. But the president managed to kill such initiatives because he wanted to hold by-elections as proof of his reforms to attract the West.

Aung Thein Linn, one of the top former USDP leaders and chairman of the party’s Rangoon Division, told Chinese media that some of Thein Sein’s critical decisions were nothing more than “his own idea, not a resolution by the Parliament.”

He continued to say that the party opposes the president’s decision. “He [Thein Sein] tried to sever the ties between China and Myanmar,” said Aung Thein Linn. Aung Thein Linn was later forced to resign for making comments against in Thein Sein and Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

In this regard, the USDP is a party that won the 2010 election, but not a ruling party. While that makes Thein Sein rely mostly on technocrats for his policy initiatives, the same detachment frustrates those who are lining up for the 2015 election. The institutional set-up of the Constitution allows Thein Sein to be able pursue a “reform agenda” without party constraints.

Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.