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The facade begins to crumble

Ebbighausen Rodion Kommentarbild App
Rodion Ebbighausen
August 13, 2015

Myanmar's ruling party chief has been ousted from his post in a dramatic move ahead of the upcoming polls. It's no coup, but still a major setback for the nation's democratic development, writes DW's Rodion Ebbighausen.

Parlamentssitzung in Naypyidaw
Image: P. H. Kyaw/AFP/Getty Images

As the date for Myanmar's presidential election draws closer, political tensions are mounting in the Southeast Asian country. The nation has been falling back into old patterns. Late on Wednesday night, August 12, security forces blockaded the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the capital, Naypyidaw. Nobody was allowed in or out of the building.

A new party leadership was agreed upon in a secret meeting, which lasted until the early morning hours of Thursday. Shortly after, it emerged that former general and influential parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann was no longer the party's chairman. Some of his allies were also removed from the party. Many viewed Shwe Mann as a promising candidate for the presidency. But he has now lost the power struggle with incumbent president and former general Thein Sein.

There had already been signs of division within the ruling USDP. Shwe Mann had signaled his willingness to work together with the National League for Democracy (NLD) of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after the election. Should the poll be free and fair, the NLD is expected to become the strongest party in Myanmar.

Shew Mann had also pushed parliament to amend the appointment process of the chief ministers of Myanmar's 14 administrative districts, who, up to that point, were directly appointed by the president without any involvement of the regional parliaments. The USDP desired the change in order to foster trust between the central government and the regions. But the military wanted no part in this and made use of its 25-percent parliamentary minority to block the bill.

Shwe Mann had apparently overestimated both his influence and leeway. The party's conservative wing, which is close to the military, now struck back.

Less progress than expected

The case of Shwe Mann shows just how little has changed in the Southeast Asian country since the opening-up process which began in 2011. Back then, the generals traded their uniforms for civilian clothes in order to establish a quasi-civilian government.

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DW Asia's Rodion EbbighausenImage: DW

The military's commanding tone was dropped almost overnight, and words such as democracy, sustainability, transparency and respect started being used by the former military rulers as if they had been self-evident. And the turnaround seemed complete when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

As a result, the West was delighted and sanctions were lifted. US President Barack Obama celebrated democracy's victory and German President Joachim Gauck decided to visit Myanmar and praise the nation's newly won freedoms. But in this atmosphere of jubilation, regular calls on the government to carry on with reforms went unheeded.

A tedious process

And the nearer the election date draws, the more cracks are becoming visible on the 2011 facade. All attempts to pave the way for Aung San Suu Kyi's presidential candidacy have failed. The Nobel Peace laureate is not allowed to run for president because of a clause in the junta-drafted constitution barring anyone with a foreign spouse or children from taking the top political office - the late husband of the Nobel laureate was British, as are her two sons.

The military has also made use of its parliamentary minority to block any constitutional amendments which could curb its influence on national affairs. In a recent BBC interview, Army Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing pointed out the military would not step back from politics until a peace deal was reached with all the country's ethnic armed groups. While the military's civilian disguise may have worked for some time, the green of their uniforms has become increasingly apparent four years on.

Although this doesn't mean that the opening-up process has failed, it has shown that transforming a country ruled for decades by an authoritarian regime will be a tedious process.

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