The past week’s turmoil within Myanmar’s ruling party has underscored the power of the country’s armed forces less than 12 weeks before parliamentary elections that civil society activists and others say are vital to consolidating a democracy following a half century of military rule. Security forces surrounded the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party last week to enforce an order by President Thein Sein dismissing the party’s leader, Shwe Mann.

A sunk ferry near Pyapon, Myanmar
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

Shwe Mann’s ouster from the USDP’s chairmanship appeared this week to have triggered a realignment of Myanmar’s political groupings after the country’s main opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, said her National League for Democracy (NLD) is now allied with Shwe Mann. Analysts in Myanmar say the NLD is likely to win a large popular vote for parliament.  Shwe Mann, himself a former army general and the current speaker of parliament, was ousted weeks after having proposed a constitutional amendment that would have reduced the military’s power to veto legislation in the parliament.

“The public would expect that elections [can be] a stepping stone to moving forward the Myanmar democracy process.” –Ye Htut, USIP program specialist

“Shwe Mann’s replacement as party president was the result of long-simmering tensions with both President Thein Sein’s office and [armed forces] Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who felt Shwe Mann was pitting both the party and the parliament against them and becoming too close to NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Priscilla Clapp, a USIP senior advisor and former U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar. “The strong-arm tactics used against him, however, may have had the perverse effect of casting Shwe Mann as a popular hero, driving him into open alliance with the NLD, and diminishing the USDP’s popularity in the elections.”

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is struggling with this month’s cyclone and floods, which have uprooted about 200,000 people nationwide and buried entire villages in mud. Communal violence this year, notably between Buddhist and Muslim people in the country’s west, has uprooted more than 100,000 and created a migrant crisis, sending refugees of the Muslim Rohingya community fleeing in boats to Malaysia and elsewhere.

Myanmar’s constitution, passed in 2008 by the military government, guarantees the armed forces a powerful bloc in the nation’s parliament and cabinet. Still, the preparations until now for this year’s election, on November 8, suggest that it will be Myanmar’s freest in 25 years, according to Ye Htut, USIP’s program specialist based in Yangon, the country’s largest city. Clapp also has underscored the importance of the November vote to the political transition currently underway.

In a recent visit to Washington, Ye Htut said public participation in this election already is higher than it was in 2010, when the armed forces controlled the previous parliament vote and thereafter established a nominally civilian government. He described USIP’s efforts to promote social dialogue and the role of civil society in preparing that vote.

Despite Myanmar’s history of elections controlled by the military, popular expectations for this vote have risen with the unprecedented role being played by civil society groups and international election monitors, Ye Htut said.

“The public would expect that elections [can be] a stepping stone to moving forward the Myanmar democracy process,” he said.

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