U Thein Sein resigns: a new politics for Myanmar?

Photo: IRRI Photos/CC BY 2.0
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In the wake of the resignation of former president U Thein Sein the military-backed USDP is looking to reform to achieve electoral success. However it faces a formidable opponent in the popular NLD group. And with both groups looking to build and secure a power base citizens may find themselves with a significantly better deal. 

By Zhixin Tan

U Thein Sein, Chairman of Myanmar’s co-ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), announced his shock resignation on the second day of the party’s convention in Nay Pyi Taw. Following the move, which sent shockwaves through national politics, U Than Htay, a retired Brigadier General in the Myanmar Army and former minister for Ministry of Rail Transportation and Energy is replacing him.

The resignation is especially surprising considering the former head of the party had just expelled his chief rival, former Union Parliament speaker U Shwe Mann, and 16 other USDP members with cabinet positions. The purge gave Thein Sein an absolute grip over the party. On the surface, this now seems like a wasted effort; until you look a little closer.

A newfound determination

Thein Sein’s resignation symbolises a newfound commitment on the part of the USDP to make a political comeback in 2020. The party suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2015 general election; a vote which saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) win a supermajority. “The election result is largely a consequence of years of repressive military rule. People understand that USDP leaders are former military generals or officers,” said Thura U Aung Ko, a Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Chin State.

This shift in support, fuelled by the country’s first democratic vote, suggested that the glorious days of the ruling army are finally coming to an end. In fact, the future of the military-backed USDP now seems bleak. But it is not ready to be consigned to history just yet. The party convention has been quick to reshuffle the leadership; making necessary changes in which Thein Sein’s resignation is the greatest development.

By falling on his sword, he is paving the way for a new generation of leaders who are younger and eager to step up; shaking off the associations with the old order that hinder the USDP. Nonetheless, it is clear that Thein Sein has no intention of leaving the political scene – he is no longer the party leader but will serve as its patron. In this way, the party appears reformed and new but his considerable influence will remain. However, is the facelift enough for a political comeback in 2020?

Looking at where we are today, we see the post-colonial days of constant oscillations between incompetent civilian government and military junta have come to an end. Myanmar is now entering a new phase, characterised by an intense power struggle between the military-backed USDP and pro-democracy NLD.

Against this backdrop, the USDP has vowed to win the next election but this will not be an easy task. The NLD is inexperienced but highly popular in a country where personality is important. Aung San Suu Kyi brings massive prestige and popularity to the party. On the other hand, the USDP is a military artefact that closely linked with years of repressive rule and economic hardship. That is a vast hill to climb to reach electoral success.

One mountain; two tigers

As the Chinese idiom goes, one mountain cannot contain two tigers. The presence of both the NLD and the military in parliament – as guaranteed by the 2008 Constitution – means that clashes are bound to arise. However, this will have surprising benefits for citizens; bringing sweeping reforms that could significantly improve the population’s quality of life.

For the NLD to remain popular, it must maintain economic growth of 8.5% – a threshold set by Thein Sein’s government. Meanwhile, sensitive issues such as those concerning the Rohingya people can expect to receive more attention. “We were thinking the military government party would give our rights back. We wanted to work together,” said Rafi, a 25-year-old Rohingya from Buthidaung.

Thein Sein did leave a legacy. His tenure saw a drastic improvement in the way people live. Even though the military-backed USDP is deeply unpopular, the NLD will still need to put in a huge amount of effort to prove itself as capable as USDP. Especially when USDP is now more determined than ever to win the next election to guarantee a political comeback. The fight is on.