Tag Archives: Thein Sein

Shwe Mann removal a blow to reform in Myanmar

Shwe Mann's removal represents a step backwards for Myanmar's reform process.

Shwe Mann’s purge represents a step backwards for Myanmar’s reform process.

Less than three months before the country’s highly anticipated parliamentary elections, an internal purge of Myanmar’s ruling party has cast doubts on the prospects of reforms in the Southeast Asian state.

On Wednesday evening, security forces surrounded the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), preventing politicians from leaving. Not long after, it was announced that Shwe Mann, chairman of the military-backed USDP was stepping down. The Parliament speaker’s ouster has changed Myanmar’s political landscape ahead of November 8 and has thrown the future of the nascent democracy into uncertainty.

Challenging the status quo

Shwe Mann, who was the third highest ranking official in General Than Shwe’s junta, was expected by many to take over the presidency in this year’s election. His ties to the military and his reputation as a reformer with close connections to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made him the ideal compromise candidate for a country that is struggling to maintain the pace of political and economic reforms started following the end of military rule in 2011.

It was this image as a reformer that ultimately led to his downfall. Ye Htut, Myanmar’s information minister and President Thein Sein’s spokesman confirmed as much Sunday, saying that Shwe Mann was removed because he challenged the military’s hold on parliamentary power and forged ties with rival party leaders.

Throughout Thein Sein’s tenure, Shwe Mann repeatedly made public overtures to Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Many in Myanmar expected this year’s parliamentary elections to result in a unity government of the USDP and the NLD, with Shwe Mann as president. Both party leaders expressed a desire to alter the junta-backed 2008 constitution, which currently bars Suu Kyi from becoming president and reserves 25 percent of the parliament’s seats for the military.

Announcing his desire to partner with the opposition leader gained him popularity among the reform-minded Burmese public, but it did not endear him to the military elite. Former junta leader Than Shwe has reportedly changed his mind about the series of reforms he ordered five years ago and ultimately ordered Shwe Mann’s removal in order to re-consolidate the military’s hold on power.

Dim prospects for reform

The imagery of Wednesday evening’s intra-party coup certainly suggests that a return to the atmosphere of pre-reform Myanmar is afoot. Using the country’s security forces betrayed the involvement of the Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, likely carrying the blessings of Than Shwe. Despite his large political ambition, it is doubtful that the encirclement of USDP headquarters by soldiers and military police was needed to remove Shwe Mann from power. Instead, the display of military force was symbolic, serving notice to any would-be political challengers and the Burmese public as a whole that the military is ultimately in control. The bloodless coup’s casualties were only political in nature, but the violent signals it sent will have reminded many of past military purges.  Aung San Suu Kyi may be free from house arrest, newspapers may have cautiously restarted their printing presses, but the junta has not yet given up the reins.

The political landscape leading up to this year’s elections has changed considerably following Shwe Mann’s removal. He was Thein Sein’s primary political rival and with Aung San Suu Kyi sidelined by constitutional provisions, the presidency is Thein Sein’s to lose. Whether or not he will take the opportunity is another matter. The former general has waffled in his plans regarding the presidency, alternately saying that poor health will force him to step down and suggesting that his decision depends on the “the country’s situation, the prevailing circumstances, and wishes of the people.” Thein Sein does not need to immediately decide on his political future, however. Even if he chooses to sit out November’s elections, Thein Sein can still be nominated for the presidency by parliament, according to Myanmar’s 2008 constitution.

While Thein Sein’s presidential ambitions may be unclear, the prospects for liberal reform in Myanmar are unquestionably dim. Shwe Mann’s removal likely signals both a slowdown for political reform and crackdowns on Myanmar’s burgeoning civil society and free media.

Following his ouster, the government gagged media organizations linked to Shwe Mann. The Union Daily newspaper and the weekly Leader journal, both known as mouthpieces for Shwe Mann, were ordered to suspend operations by the Ministry of Information. In addition, Cherry FM, a radio station linked to Shwe Mann’s daughter-in-law, was taken off the air Friday.

Despite seemingly bleak prospects for Myanmar’s reform process, Shwe Mann’s removal could have unexpected consequences if the November elections remain free and fair. Shwe Mann represented reform within the country’s military establishment and offered a middle road between the NLD opposition and the hardliners in the USDP. Many Burmese that I have spoken with in recent years knew that Aung San Suu Kyi’s chances of ascending to the presidency were slim and viewed Shwe Mann as an acceptable alternative. That option is gone now.

By deposing Shwe Mann, the USDP might have pushed millions of moderate voters into the arms of their political opponents. However, that all depends on free and fair elections in November – an unlikely event following Wednesday’s intra-party coup.

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Yunnan’s governor looks to smooth relations with Myanmar

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One of the top government officials in Yunnan is spending time this week in Naypyidaw, capital of neighboring Myanmar. Provincial governor Chen Hao (陈豪) began a three-day diplomatic trip May 6 by meeting with Burmese president Thein Sein to discuss a litany concerns on both sides, as well as ways to promote the increase of legitimate bilateral trade.

At the center of the talks is stability along Myanmar’s 2,000-kilometer shared border with Yunnan. The most high-profile concern is a three-month war raging between the Burmese military and ethnically Chinese Kokang guerrillas in Myanmar’s Shan State. What started as an internal Burmese issue in February quickly changed into a cross-border crisis when tens of thousands of refugees sought safety in Lincang Prefecture in Yunnan.

Already angered by the humanitarian situation, Beijing was positively incensed when Burmese warplanes bombed rural Yunnan villages not once but twice. Although the initial bombing caused only minor property damage, the latter claimed the lives of four Chinese farmers, leading Beijing to angrily summon the Burmese ambassador to China for a tongue lashing.

Chen’s trip is no doubt a delicate attempt to repair strained relations between Myanmar and China. Civil war, refugees and errant explosives are enough to make any relationship tenuous, but Chinese leadership is also concerned with the huge shipments of heroin, opium and methamphetamines that routinely leak across the porous Yunnan border.

And the concerns are not one-sided. Thein Sein’s government charges that illegal trade out of his country — especially in jade, gold, endangered species and old-growth timber — is promoted and financed by unscrupulous Chinese businessmen operating illegally in Myanmar. However, the touchiest issue may be that of human trafficking in women.

Already this year, Chinese authorities have made several notable stings, arresting dozens of people involved in buying, transporting and selling Burmese women to perspective Chinese husbands. The largest of these occurred in March, when police made 35 arrests and repatriated 177 women and girls to Myanmar after raiding a Yunnan company advertising “Myanmar women [who] cost you only 20,000 yuan”.

Chen has only officially been in power since January, and his province’s western border snakes along endless mountain ranges, beside lush river valleys and through dense jungle that are nearly impossible to properly patrol. The one possible bright spot, and something he will undoubtedly bring up repeatedly during his Naypyidaw visit, is bilateral trade and the third annual China-South Asia Expo opening June 12 in Kunming. But what can be accomplished regarding the lawless and sometimes dangerous border between Myanmar and Yunnan remains a giant question mark.

This article was written by Patrick Scally and originally published on GoKunming. It is reprinted here, in its entirety, with permission from the author.

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A Restart for the Myitsone Dam?

This September 30 will mark the two years anniversary of the suspension of the Myitsone Dam and once again, there is talk of resuming the project. In 2011, the controversial dam, built by state-owned China Power Investment (CPI) was shelved by Burmese President Thein Sein until 2015.  Since the project’s suspension there have been intermittent reports that construction will begin again, but despite much anticipation on the Chinese side, none of these rumors have led to any action on the project. However, reports in the last month hint at a greater possibility of resuming construction. Does Myitsone really have a future?

This latest round of discussion of Myitsone’s revival started last month with China’s Ambassador to Burma, Yang Houlan. In an interview with the Irrawaddy Magazine, published August 15, Ambassador Yang stated that the Chinese government supported a resumption of construction on the $3.6 billion project. However, while he made clear that the Chinese are for the completion of the dam, the Ambassador added that any action on the project would have to be approved by the Burmese. “China’s view is that we hope we can revive the project,” he said. “But of course, we respect the Myanmar government’s decision and we also respect the people’s views.”  The hydropower project, which is located in northeast Burma’s Kachin State, was suspended in 2011 after intense public disapproval of the project and nationwide protests. It is unknown whether or not further construction on the dam would lead to public outcry like that seen in 2010 and 2011.

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Is there state complicity in the attacks on Myanmar Muslims communities?

The government of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, so active in its efforts to assure Western audiences that the new Myanmar will never return to the dark days of the previous ruling military junta, has so far failed to display any commitment to ending the brutal spiral of attacks on Muslim communities, carried out in town after town by suspiciously well-organized Buddhist gangs.

Thein Sein’s periodic appeals for ”an end to communal violence” are less than convincing given the absence of any government measures or plan to stem the flood anti-Muslim propaganda being freely disseminated under the noses of the authorities.

Leaflets and magazines denigrating Muslims are being churned out every day across the country.

The monk Wirathu has spread a perniciously xenophobic version of Theravada Buddhism through inflammatory sermons directed against a Muslim minority that comprises only 5% of the population in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million

Extremist Buddhist monks led by the publicity hungry U Wirathu, are preaching a brand of pure Buddhist nation-state and hatred of Islam, that cause consternation and disgust  among the true devotees of peace non-violence and the path of the Lord Buddha.
Muslim shops and homes in Lashio in Shan state were the most recent victims of a Buddhist motorbike gang in June. Shan researcher Sai Latt commented  “the government and the police are not doing anything at all to clamp down on extremist hate propaganda against Muslims.” Continue reading

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Mr. Thein Sein Goes to Washington… Mr. Abe Goes to Naypidaw

This past week saw big foreign policy news from Myanmar (Burma). Just days after meeting with US President Obama in Washington, Burmese President Thein Sein returned to Naypidaw to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Both visits saw improvements in Burma’s respective relations with the two countries, but which of the two relationships remain closer? From whom did Burma gain the most, and vice versa? The clear answer is Japan.

President Thein Sein visited Washington at the beginning of last week, becoming the first Burmese leader to visit the US since Ne Win in 1966. The visit was a largely symbolic one, lacking many of the tangible economic benefits that are usually associated with these sort of state visits. Aside from agreements to strengthen bilateral trade relations with two US agencies, most of Myanmar’s benefits can be found in the language of US officials. Before the President arrived, US Press Secretary Jay Carney referred to the country as Myanmar, not Burma. Myanmar is the name used by the military junta since 1989, while Burma is an appellation preferred by opponents of the regime. President Obama also referred to the country as ‘Myanmar’ and while it does not mark an official policy change, it does reflect a change in attitude.

During his meeting with President Thein Sein, Obama raised the perennial issue of human rights, but at the same time expressed strong support for the leader. Also of note, US Senator Mitch McConnell, a long-time champion of sanctions against Myanmar, said he was no longer in support of continued sanctions against the country, paving the way for smoother relations in the future. The Burmese president’s visit to the US came without multi-million dollar contracts and major US investment in the country will have to wait, but Thein Sein’s visit did represent a further thawing of the relationship, and offers hope for the future.

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