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Burma’s Political Establishment Is at War With Itself

Burma's ruling USDP party was originally created to enshrine military rule -- but now it's starting to crash with the generals.

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Much of the coverage of domestic politics in Burma focuses on the divide between the military-dominated government of President Thein Sein and the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet in some ways the more interesting story is the growing split between the military and the ruling party. Even though the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was originally created to enshrine military rule, it has lately been showing signs of a more independent course.

On July 10, USDP legislators failed in their attempt to pass an amendment to Burma’s 2008 constitution that would have ensured greater decentralization when their effort ran afoul of the military bloc in the legislature. Members of parliament representing the armed forces (who are appointed to their seats by the military, not elected) quashed the amendment.

Lawmakers from the ruling party had proposed changing a constitutional provision, known as Article 261, that gives the president the power to name the heads of Burma’s fourteen regions. The constitution additionally gives the president the power to dismiss or reshuffle these regional leaders, known as chief ministers, at his or her own discretion. The regional governments have zero say in the matter.

The reformers proposed allowing regional parliaments to elect the chief ministers instead. One argument for the change was that it would help to pave the way toward national reconciliation between the central government and ethnic minorities, who predominate in some of the regions. The ethnic minorities started fighting for their rights not long after Burma achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948, and the country’s civil war has continued ever since.

“Amending Article 261 is a key to building trust within the union,” said Thein Nyunt, an outspoken lawmaker from Rangoon, referring to the controversial provision. “It’s important. It’s a matter of national reconciliation.”

The military’s refusal to countenance even such a modest change to the constitution has come as a surprise to many. The USDP probably envisioned the move as a way of bolstering its own democratic credentials and undermining Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s pro-democracy opposition, by drawing away some of her support among the ethnic minority groups. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), could be vulnerable on this front, given that it has yet to articulate its own policies toward the ethnic minority regions ahead of the general election scheduled for this November.

Whatever the USDP’s original calculations, though, it’s now become clear that the military sees little reason to compromise with its opponents. “The serving military officers and retired military officers are unwilling to make even a small concession, like amending Article 261,” said Yan Myo Thein, a political commentator in Rangoon. “They don’t have the political will to change.”

Before military lawmakers blocked the effort to amend Article 261, they had already done the same with a series of other proposed amendments, including one that would have lowered the threshold needed to amend the constitution. Currently, at least 75 percent of the members of parliament have to vote for a constitutional amendment in order for it to be approved. The constitution guarantees representatives of the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament, effectively giving this bloc veto power over any changes. The military members of parliament predictably cited the need for “stability” as their reason for voting down the proposed change.

“We are making the country’s situation stable by putting 25 percent military MPs in the parliament,” said Brigadier General Tin San Hlaing, himself a military lawmaker. “If these articles really need to be amended, the military representatives would not hesitate to do so.”

All this has observers wondering whether the armed forces are now moving into open opposition to the USDP, which is currently led by Shwe Mann, an ex-general who is now the speaker of the parliament’s lower house. Shwe Mann aspired to become president in 2010 and early 2011, before the new government was sworn in March 2011.

Although at that time Shwe Mann failed to get the nod from Than Shwe, the general who then ran Burma’s ruling military junta, he has continued to keep his eye on the top job. In the four years since then, Shwe Mann has overseen a steady expansion of parliament’s power, transforming the once ineffectual body into a counterweight to the administration of President Thein Sein. There are indications that members of the presidential cabinet, as well as the upper ranks of the military, are starting to feel threatened by their former colleagues in the USDP.

The power struggle within the elite looks set to intensify in the weeks before the election. The USDP leadership recently demonstrated its resolve by refusing to give two of the president’s right-hand men the right to campaign in districts the party is sure to win. The party rejected requests by the two ministers, Soe Thane and Aung Min, to run for office in safe constituencies, saying that “their requests are not in line with the party’s policies.” This open act of defiance was a big blow to the president.

“Currently the National Assembly is functioning as the opposition to the executive power,” said Win Tin, editor of the Union Daily, the official USDP newspaper. He notes that the ruling party and the opposition NLD, sworn enemies not so long ago, now consult with each other frequently and sometimes even coordinate their actions in the national assembly. “So the USDP and the NLD are working together the sake of the country.”

Some Burmese commentators, such as Yan Myo Thein, dismiss the talk of a split within the elite as empty theater, staged with the ultimate aim of getting Aung San Suu Kyi out of power. “It’s all just a card game,” he said. “They’re holding a stacked deck and they know all of the Lady’s cards. I think there’s no real split, just psychological warfare.”

All this is certainly making Burmese politics more interesting than it was in the old days. But given the country’s history, no one is expecting the military to just give up and go away quietly. If there were any doubts on that score, they’ve been dispelled by Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, who just surprised everyone by giving an unprecedented interview to the BBC. In the interview, the general declared that no one should expect the military to withdraw from politics until the government and the rebellious ethnic minorities finally manage to conclude a peace agreement and end the civil war. Then, and only then, the general explained, will the military finally feel that is safe to leave national affairs to the civilians. Needless to say, as things stand now, it’s unlikely that any comprehensive peace deals will be signed between now and the election. The generals are still a very long way from giving up.

In the photo, unelected military members of parliament attend a session in April 2015.
Photo credit: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

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