GWEN ROBINSON, Chief editor, and SIMON ROUGHNEEN, Asia regional correspondent
KANYUNTKWIN, BAGO, Myanmar — By noon on Wednesday, it appeared that the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party had finally lost patience with Shwe Mann, the parliamentary speaker who was ousted as party chair in August after a long running rivalry with Myanmar President Thein Sein.
Htay Oo, the USDP’s acting chair, told the BBC that Shwe Mann, a candidate in Myanmar’s imminent parliamentary elections, had been formally and finally removed from the party two days before. Htay Oo said the decision had been taken because “those who no longer serve the party should no longer be member[s].”
Later the same afternoon, however, after various party spokespersons had said anonymously to local media that Shwe Mann had not been expelled, the party issued a statement dismissing his ouster as a “rumor.”
“All senior ministers were away for the November 8 election, so no meeting of any kind was held at USDP headquarters,” Kyaw Thura, the party’s head of public relations, told the media in Naypyitaw.
It was the second dramatic pre-election U-turn in a matter of weeks in Myanmar, following a decision by the election commission on Oct. 13 to reverse a proposal to postpone the polls after fierce opposition from the National League for Democracy, the main opposition party.
Shwe Mann, who was the third most senior member of a military junta that ruled the country until 2011, had earned the ire of USDP rivals after attempting to stack the party’s election candidate list with his allies, while demoting candidates thought to be close to President Thein Sein.
After losing out to Thein Sein for selection as presidential candidate in early 2011, Shwe Mann has signaled his ambitions to replace his rival as president in 2016, and has formed a loose alliance with NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi — apparently in the hope of winning her support in a separate vote for the presidency to be held after the election.
While Thein Sein is seen as the key to Shwe Mann’s position within the USDP, analysts noted that the president has the backing of the military, which holds an automatic allocation of 25% of all parliamentary seats and a veto over constitutional change.
Shwe Mann has provoked both groups with proposals to reduce the military’s power by lowering a “super majority’ threshold for constitutional changes and to prevent some of the president’s key ministerial allies from running under party banners in the election.
Shwe Mann on Wednesday continued a series of campaign speeches in small villages in his home region of Phyu, where is standing, urging people to “cooperate with one another” in order to achieve better living standards. “In order to get what you want it’s vital that the people work together, discuss together — it’s impossible to work alone,” he said.
“We have to take stock, the implications are really not clear,” a member of Shwe Mann’s campaign team said after news of Htay Oo’s comments to the BBC emerged, and before the party’s official statement of denial.
Shwe Mann made no mention of his reported ejection from the party to his supporters and told the Nikkei Asian Review that his campaign was “going well.”
The USDP’s embarrassing volte-face over Shwe Mann’s ejection from the party, which took place just four days before the election, has raised uncertainty about Shwe Mann’s role as speaker and about the future of the party.
An official with an election-observing group described the saga as “all too bizarre.” “There doesn’t seem to be any precedent for this — we are not sure how it will affect the election in Phyu let alone the bigger political picture,” the observer said.
An official at the election commission told the NAR that in the event of Shwe Mann’s expulsion from the USDP, the speaker would nonetheless be able to compete in the election as an independent candidate.
As things stand, Shwe Mann is likely to continue in his role as the incumbent speaker for parliament’s final session, scheduled for Nov. 16, when MPs will debate the national budget and attend to outstanding bills before the new parliament starts in late February.
The race for Phyu is one of the most improbable among contests for more than 1,150 seats in national and regional parliaments. After Shwe Mann was toppled as USDP chief in mid-August, he left his military-dominated constituency in Naypyitaw, the capital, to run in his hometown under the USDP banner.
But in what analysts see as a “proxy battle,” a member of Thein Sein’s staff, Ko Ko Kyaw, a deputy director-general of the President’s Office, resigned his post in early August to run against Shwe Mann in Phyu. Both are natives of the area, as are candidates from other major parties competing in Phyu.
Notably, and in a sign of tacit support for Shwe Mann, Suu Kyi has avoided visiting Phyu. The NLD candidate there, Than Nyunt, a mild-mannered local who has been a party member since its founding in the late 1980s, said that “not much would change” even if Shwe Mann was removed from the party ticket.
“People here want change, I don’t think they will change their vote because of his removal,” Than Nyunt said.
Win Htein, a senior NLD member, said the saga showed how the political rumour mill in Myanmar could spiral out of hand. “I don’t know how this started, maybe it was a kind of trick,” Win Htein said.
*Roughneen reported from YangonShow