NAYPYIDAW: 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 Thursday 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.
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.
But the United States Embassy in Yangon said it was “concerned about the apparent use of state security forces” during Thursday’s move, calling for the protection of the “public trust in the democratic process”.
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.
Half a century of military rule in Myanmar was often punctuated by power struggles and purges of senior officials.
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 others 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.
Trevor Wilson, an academic at the Australian National University and former ambassador to Myanmar, said the move “looks very unexpected and unplanned”.
It also, he added, raised the potential of either Thein Sein — or current army chief Min Aung Hlaing — taking on the mantle of the compromise presidential candidate after the elections.
Many observers are now looking to Suu Kyi and her party for their reaction.
The veteran campaigner, who was locked up for years under the previous junta, has cancelled a scheduled political visit over the weekend, but has otherwise been silent on the dramatic events at the ruling party.
Documents seen by AFP suggest Thein Sein has now parachuted several loyal cabinet members and recently retired military officers into the top party echelons.
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.
Reforms under Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government, which came to power in 2011, have seen Suu Kyi lead her party into parliament while new political and economic freedoms began to transform the long-cloistered nation.