On the night of August 12, soldiers in Naypyidaw surrounded the headquarters of Burma’s ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). By the end of the night, Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann had been deposed as party leader, replaced by President Thein Sein. Some call this a “military coup,” with Thein Sein using military force to oust a political rival.
However, Shwe Mann still has deep ties to the military. A former general, Shwe Mann commanded the offensive in Karen State that saw countless horrors and human rights abuses. Prior to the nominal transition to a “civilian” government in 2011, he was number three in the military junta, and since then has headed the military-backed USDP.
This removal comes as the culmination of a long struggle between the two military veterans President Thein Sein and Shwe Mann. There has been wide speculation that Shwe Mann would seek the presidency in 2015, posing a threat to Thein Sein’s reelection bid. While in parliament, Shwe Mann formed a tenuous working relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi, and supported some constitutional reform measures. The final straw in relations between Shwe Mann and the military came this week, when 149 military officers resigned to seek office in the November elections, only to have 90 of their candidacies blocked by Shwe Mann.
If this is how the military handles a dispute within its own party, how will it handle a transfer of power to the opposition party? The National League for Democracy (NLD) is contesting nearly every seat in parliament on November 8, and is expected to perform very well. This is the same party that swept elections in 1990 only to have the military annul the results entirely, and whose leader was put under house arrest for the better part of two decades. The military forcibly removed a former general who is serving as speaker of the lower house of parliament, and it is difficult to imagine it would be more receptive towards Aung San Suu Kyi after elections in which her NLD party won a significant number of seats.
Even if the military does respect the results of the elections, it still will maintain effective control over Burma under the military-written constitution. The military has a guaranteed 25% hold on seats in parliament, and veto power over any constitutional amendment. It also controls the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Home Affairs, and Ministry of Border Affairs. Finally, it ultimately has the power to dissolve the constitutional government and reestablish military rule.
Although actions like those of August 12 do not inspire confidence that the upcoming elections will be free and fair, the international community cannot demand anything short of that. In the United States, we must continue to pressure our elected officials to demand free and fair elections and changes within the system to make the country more democratic; anything less should be met with firm consequences from the United States.