Jockeying for position – The Edge Review

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Burma President Thein Sein pictured at ASEM summit in Vientiane in 2012  (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Burma President Thein Sein pictured at ASEM summit in Vientiane in 2012 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Speculation grows about Myanmar’s presidency

YANGON – It is almost two years since he announced his ambition to be president, and Myanmar’s lower house parliament speaker thinks it is time for a reminder.

Shwe Mann told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last week that he hopes to be nominated as the presidential candidate of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) once the dust settles after national elections.

Myanmar’s 50 million people will choose their MPs at national and regional levels in November, after which those new lawmakers will elect a president.

President Thein Sein, like Shwe Mann a former army man and a senior figure in the old junta, has hinted that he won’t seek a second term. That would indeed leave Shwe Mann, now party chairman, as the likely USDP frontrunner.

But in a free and fair election, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party headed by iconic former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, would likely win the most seats. That would mean USDP backing alone would not be enough for Shwe Mann.

With that in mind, the sharp-suited politician sent an overture to the NLD from Washington. “The leaders of the NLD and myself are very good friends. At the same time we could be competitors,” Shwe Mann said. He would consider an alliance with the NLD, he said, or any of Myanmar’s 70-plus parties likely to contest the election.

Suu Kyi is ineligible to be president, and the NLD has yet to announce any alternative candidate from the party.

Asked about Shwe Mann’s political eyelash-batting, however, the NLD’s Han Tha Myint stressed it was too early to discuss post-election possibilities, much less commit to backing Shwe Mann.

“He has to deal with his colleagues in the party first,” said Han Tha Myint, the NLD’s economics point man and now party spokesman. “We don’t have any official stance on [forming a coalition with him].”

In central Myanmar, dominated by the ethnic Burmans, the NLD is likely to win big in the country’s first-past-the-post voting system. Less clear is how it will fare in ethnic minority regions where local, identity-based parties are likely to win a substantial chunk of the vote and could end up with considerable influence.

Shwe Mann too will have to court the ethnic vote, which could prove difficult given that his army background could put off people in regions where the military for decades waged war on tribal militias.

But the NLD itself has been criticized by minorities as a party biased towards ethnic Burmans, who make up around 60 per cent of the population.

Vikram Nehru, an Asia expert at Carnegie, reckoned Shwe Mann would struggle to win the top job, but added that “much will depend on how he uses the remaining months in bolstering his support among the USDP, the ethnic parties and the armed forces.”

For now, the NLD is focused on revising the country’s 2008 constitution – a document railroaded into law via a referendum widely seen as rigged. It gave the army a veto-wielding 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and ruled Suu Kyi out of running for the presidency by barring anyone with a foreign spouse or children. Her late husband and two sons are British.

Despite the NLD’s two-year campaign to overturn these prohibitions – which included a petition that garnered five million signatures – the country’s military-backed elites last November said they refused to entertain any changes.

Hardliners such as the Buddhist monk Wirathu, frontman for a vicious and racially divisive campaign targeting some of Myanmar’s Muslim minority, have said that they do not want Suu Kyi to lead the country, hinting of instability to follow if the army and its front party, the USDP, loses power.

So if Suu Kyi can’t stand, Thein Sein appears to have had enough and Shwe Mann mayne unable to get enough parties’ backing, what will eventuate remains a tough call.

One possibility is that the army’s 25 per cent bloc of seats could in theory line up behind army chief Min Aung Hlaing, if, as is being whispered, he retires from the military before the election.

Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, former army men themselves, did just that before the 2010 vote, returning to civilian life and in turn making themselves eligible for office under Myanmar’s military-backed civilian order. Few would bet that something similar couldn’t happen again.

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