Shadows of the Past in Shwe Mann’s Sudden Fall from Grace

By Aung Zaw 13 August 2015

The infamous political purges of Burma’s junta-era were recalled on Wednesday night as news filtered through of a well-planned plot to remove the influential parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann from the top ruling party post.

Former generals with close links to ex-junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe are believed to be involved in the purge which saw Shwe Mann, widely viewed as the third most powerful general in Burma’s former military regime, removed from his post as Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chairman.

The drama began to unfold at around 9 pm on Wednesday night as security forces entered party headquarters in Naypyidaw where senior USDP leaders had gathered.

Amid high tensions and no little confusion, as the embattled Shwe Mann faction struggled to comprehend their impending political demise, the now former party chairman was unceremoniously removed from his post, along with close allies including USDP general secretary Maung Maung Thein.

It was a bloodless, Burmese-style coup which seemingly ended the presidential ambitions of Shwe Mann and turned up the pre-elections heat as Burma’s political parties look to finalize candidate lists before an August 14 deadline.

On Wednesday, the party held a welcoming ceremony for new candidates at its headquarters in Naypyidaw. Among them were over 50 military officers—whittled down from a list of 143 who applied—newly injected into the party’s ranks to contest the November 8 election.

It was a bad omen for Shwe Mann, who had attended Wednesday’s ceremony and press conference alongside party colleagues, but it was not the first.

In July, the senior USDP figure was the target of a petition campaign, which collected some 1,700 signatures in his Naypyidaw constituency, calling for his impeachment with claims that he violated the law by not respecting the military’s role in the Union Parliament.

Shwe Mann was nothing if not ambitious, repeatedly expressing his desire to become president and forging an informal alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s main opposition party—widely tipped to perform strongly in the upcoming national poll.

This rare alliance across the political divide would have sent jitters through the ranks of Burma’s military and executive leadership, with top figures wary of being sidelined in the country’s post-election landscape.

No one knows the exact nature of Shwe Mann’s political dalliance, tacit or otherwise, with Suu Kyi, but government stalwarts must have wondered: what happens if the NLD wins a majority in the upcoming election? How would the unity of the USDP be impacted, or the military’s ongoing political role?

Since 2012, there were growing signs of a power struggle between the competing factions of Thein Sein and Shwe Mann and now it appears that senior leaders demanded an intervention.

It is believed that former junta head Than Shwe has followed political developments closely, rarely leaving the capital he ordered built from scratch over 10 years ago.

He met veteran generals from the former regime at his residence on the country’s annual Armed Forces Day in March, endeavoring to show he remained healthy and interested in politics.

He is said to be unhappy with the plan he had formulated for a ‘civilian’ handover in 2010 and has now backed a plan B, which involved the removal of the Shwe Mann faction and a reconsolidation of power behind the ruling party and the military, as one.

With growing tensions between the two factions and concerns of a serious intraparty split, it is believed that a Than Shwe-blessed intervention was thought necessary.

Trained soldiers always wait until their rivals are weakened before making a move. Such was the case with Shwe Mann, who was removed shortly after the death of an ally, Aung Thaung, a USDP hardliner, in Singapore last month.

Burma’s opposition camp is in no state to benefit from the ruling party shakeup, finding itself in a marginally less dramatic state of discord over its selection of candidates for the November election.

The party’s original 1,090-name list, to which more are expected to be added, contained several notable absentees including pro-democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi and Rangoon Division lawmaker Nyo Nyo Thin, sparking an immediate outcry, including from within the party’s rank and file.

As the country reels from its most severe flooding in recent memory, politicians, including Thein Sein, have visited flood-affected areas—no doubt acutely aware of public perceptions ahead of this year’s poll. On one of these trips to Irrawaddy Division’s Hinthada, the president was also seen meeting party members, including Htay Oo, the newly minted USDP joint chairman.

The quiet coup against Shwe Mann was executed just before the deadline for the submission of electoral candidates on Friday. It was a move executed by President Thein Sein, in collaboration with the military, to reconsolidate power ahead of this year’s crucial election.