Party leader ousted in Myanmar power struggle. A return to junta methods?

Party leader Thura Shwe Mann is the speaker of Myanmar's parliament and considered the main rival of President Thein Sein in upcoming elections. He also had built ties to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung Shine Oo/AP
Thura Shwe Mann, speaker of the Union Parliament, casts his vote for constitution amendments during a regular session at the Union Parliament Thursday, June 25, 2015, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.

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Thura Shwe Mann, head of Myanmar’s military-backed ruling party and a former member of the junta that ruled until 2011, was ousted by security forces overnight in what is described as a power struggle with President Thein Sein.

The move comes just three months ahead of Myanmar’s general elections, which international observers are viewing as a measure of just how much power military elites are willing to relinquish in the nation’s move toward democracy.

Security forces surrounded the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) headquarters in the middle of the night Wednesday to remove Mr. Shwe Mann and party general secretary Maung Maung Thein from their leadership roles.

Shwe Mann, who was the third most-powerful member of the former junta, is considered President Thein’s main rival in presidential elections, and was replaced as party leader by a close ally of the president. Shwe Mann had recently shown support for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in Nov. 8 parliamentary elections.

The Ministry of Information told The New York Times that the military presence overnight was “necessary for the situation.” But the move is reminiscent of political purges that frequently took place under nearly 50 years of military rule.

"We did not expect this. There were some disagreement inside the party, but that's all. This is not good – both for the party and also for the country's future," a USDP party member told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.

The ouster comes on the heels of "rare discord within the establishment over the role of the military” in politics, which still maintains vital veto powers despite transferring power to a quasi-civilian government four years ago, Reuters reports.  

Shwe Mann had built ties with Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has called repeatedly for the military to withdraw from politics, and he angered the military by supporting an attempt in parliament in June to amend the constitution to limit the military's political role.

It is unclear what the changes mean for the reform agenda in Myanmar, but the heavy-handed involvement of the security forces smacks of the junta-era approach to resolving political disputes.

"It's an unwanted and extreme step to do this," said Khin Zaw Win, Director of the Tampadipa Institute, a policy advocacy group, and adviser to multiple MPs.

"They are using security apparatus to affect a reshuffle in the party. They should have settled this some other way rather than using brute force. This is a reminder of the very unhappy past."

The removal of Shwe Mann comes one day after his USDP party chose less than 50 percent of the nearly 160 recently retired military officials to serve as party candidates in November elections, the Financial Times reports. “The legislative election is doubly crucial because MPs, rather than voters, will choose the next president,” according to The FT.

Myanmar received praise for its moves toward democratization after the 2011 transition by making key changes in terms of human rights. It released hundreds of political prisoners, and in 2012 allowed Ms. Suu Kyi to be elected to parliament. She is constitutionally banned from running for president.

But human rights violations persist, with some 50,000 minority Rohingya Muslims, many of whom have been denied statehood, fleeing the country. In March, the government violently cracked down on student protesters, in what was popularly characterized as a “throwback” to military-era tactics, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

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