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Myanmar’s Internal Coup

The circumstances of the ouster of the chairman of Maynmar’s ruling, military front, United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and speaker of parliament last week has begun to clarify the political contours that will take the country into general elections on 8 November. It appears that military hard-liners will attempt to form a coalition government to keep out the otherwise popular, reformist National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Shwe Mann had rubbed many member of the USDP the wrong way with his highly personalized political style, his expressions of interest in running for the presidency and his closeness to Suu Kyi and the NLD. However, in the arcane world of Myanmar’s military-political world, having a personalised political style has not been unusual.
President Thein Sein’s own political approach has put him at the centre of Myanmar’s military-political factions, pursuing a substantial economic reform agenda, from which regime cronies have benefited, and a more cautious political agenda. However, unlike Shwe Mann, he was not seen as hungry for power, having said he would not re-contest the presidency.
It is believed that there were considerable tensions between the two, as well as between Shwe Mann and more conservative political and military leaders. That a number of Shwe Mann’s supporters in the parliament were also removed from their posts, the move looks much more like an internal coup than actions against a single individual.
Shwe Mann was subsequently under pressure to resign his parliamentary position, with moves being made by his opponents to see if it was possible to legally oust him. Prior to Myanmar’s move towards openness, he would more likely have been arrested and jailed for an indeterminate period, as had happened to one of his predecessors, former intelligence head and architect of the original reform process, Khin Nyunt.
Ahead of Myanmar’s elections and the long process of selecting president, three options appeared available. The first was that the NLD would win an absolute majority and elect one of its own as president. Under Myanmar’s constitution, Suu Kyi is banned from becoming president because she has close relatives living abroad.
However, the NLD could appoint another its number or, with an absolute majority, argue the moral case for its own candidate and seek support from the military block of 25 per cent in parliament to change the constitution to allow Suu Kyi to be elected. Given that the military had recently vetoed such an amendment to the constitution, this latter option seemed more hopeful than realistic.
It is also possible, given the residual vote for the USDP and support for minor ethnic parties not sympathetic to the NLD, that the NLD might fall short of achieving an absolute majority. A second option, which appeared to be favored by Shwe Mann, could then be that a candidate acceptable to both the NLD and the USDP step in with support from both, guaranteeing election as president, in what would in effect be a power-sharing type arrangement. The compromise candidate would, in such a scenario, be Shwe Mann.
However, hard-liners in the USDP appear to think that, if they can ensure that the NLD does not achieve an absolute majority then they will be able to form a conservative coalition and appoint one of their own as president. In this way, the USDP and the military will have been seen to be relatively democratic – with 25 per cent of the parliament reserved for the military, Myanmar will not be a democracy – yet have retained its position of power.
Such an approach will satisfy Myanmar’s military and political hard-liners and ensure that any future political transition – if it is to happen – will continue at a very controlled pace. Some believe, however, that the extent to which Myanmar has liberalized is the extent to which it will be allowed to do so for the foreseeable future.
As Myanmar goes into the election campaign period, the only thing that is certain is that Shwe Mann will not, now, be running for the presidency. All else about Myanmar’s political future remains uncertain.