Army tightens grip in Myanmar

The leader of Myanmar’s ruling party was ousted by the country’s president in a dramatic swoop Thursday as the army and its allies strengthened their political grip ahead of crucial elections.

The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has been gripped by in-fighting in the run up to the November polls—billed as the freest and fairest for decades in the former-junta ruled nation.

After a night of high political drama which saw security forces enter the USDP base in Naypyidaw, Shwe Mann—who is also the parliamentary speaker—was ousted in an unexpected party putsch.

The USDP, which served as a vehicle for former junta figures to transform into MPs, issued a statement myanmarThursday confirming President Thein Sein had stepped in to appoint a new leader, Htay Oo, in order for the party to be run more “effectively”.

“The party needed to be reformed for party unity,” it said.

The move comes a day before the deadline for candidates to register to contest the upcoming polls.

Recent months have seen rumours of animosity between Shwe Mann and Thein Sein, both former generals who shed their uniforms to play central roles in Myanmar’s reforms.

While Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party is expected to make major gains at the November polls, the Nobel laureate is barred by a junta-drafted constitution from becoming the president.

Shwe Mann had been tipped as a possible compromise candidate for the presidency, a role selected by a parliament he is well acquainted with from his role as speaker.

  • Army red lines? –

Half a century of military rule in Myanmar was often punctuated by power struggles and purges of senior officials.

Officials sought to downplay the significance of Thursday’s power play so close to an election.

“This is just a party leadership affair, there is no reason to worry,” Zaw Htay of the President’s Office told AFP.

The government was working “to stabilise public order,” he added, without giving details, refuting rumours Shwe Mann had been arrested.

Newly-appointed senior USDP officials told reporters in Naypyidaw that the ousted leader would continue to hold his position in parliament and was still a member of the party, though not in a senior position.

But observers were left scrambling to decipher meaning from Thursday’s surprise move.

“We did not expect this. There were some disagreements inside the party, but that’s all. This is not good—both for the party and also for the country’s future,” a USDP source told AFP requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

One Western diplomatic source said it showed the country’s army-backed elites were setting out “red lines for elections and beyond”, adding that it was unlikely to disrupt the polls.

Suu Kyi, locked up for years by the junta for her campaigns for democracy, was freed from house arrest and led her party into parliament in 2012 by-elections, while new political and economic freedoms began to transform the long-cloistered nation.

But concerns over the depth and pace of those reforms have mounted in recent months.

Crackdowns on student protesters and the media have raised fears that repressive instincts remain intact among Myanmar’s old guard.

Documents seen by AFP suggest Thein Sein has now parachuted several loyal cabinet members and recently retired military officers into the top party echelons.

On Wednesday, senior USDP member Aung Ko told AFP that the party had received “more than a hundred” applications from recently retired military officers and cabinet ministers looking to stand in the elections for the party.

But many of these had not been accepted into the party.