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The Guardian view on the ousting of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political ally: another obstacle to democracy

Thura Shwe Mann, days before losing his position as chair of the Burmese ruling party in August 2015. Photograph: U Aung/Xinhua Press/Corbis

August 17, 2015

By deposing Thura Shwe Mann as chair of the government party, the generals again dash democratic hopes in Burma

Burma’s so-called transition to democracy has been a fraught process from the beginning. It was clear when it started in 2010 that most of the generals who run the country merely wanted to re-badge the regime, adding some democratic symbols and appurtenances, but without giving up much of the substance of power. The aim was to achieve a degree of respectability abroad and acceptability at home, in a country that had changed greatly since the military first took over and which could not be ruled in the often arbitrary way that once prevailed.

Some military men probably understood that there had to be more to it than a few generals changing into civilian suits, and above all, that Aung San Suu Kyi, who has more democratic legitimacy by far than any other figure in Burma, could not be indefinitely denied a serious political role.

Among these was Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, who was suddenly deposed as chairman of the government party last week and who may face other sanctions on Tuesday, including expulsion from the legislature. This may seem like remote shenanigans in a distant country, but the alliance between Thura Shwe Mann and Aung San Suu Kyi had emerged in recent months as the only way in which Burma could conceivably move away from its quasi-authoritarian system towards something like genuine democracy. It could have provided the bridge the country needed. Put simply, Aung San Suu Kyi had the votes, and Thura Shwe Mann had, or appeared to have, the connections. The regime had persisted in refusing to change the law that prevents her from standing for the presidency after the coming general elections in November.

But it could not alter the fact that she and her National League for Democracy were popular and likely to win more seats than any other party. So, in the indirect elections for the presidency that follow general elections, she could be in a position to direct her MPs to vote for a particular candidate. If other parties followed suit, or if the regime decided that concession was unavoidable, Thura Shwe Mann could have become president. This would hardly have been an ideal solution, as his past is murky, his reform credentials are not unspotted, and some felt he was not to be trusted. But it would still have featured an elected president supported by the most important party in the legislature. He and Aung San Suu Kyi could then have moved the country on to the path of true reform, with her cultivating her popular base and him coaxing the military into going along.

Unfortunately, Thura Shwe Mann’s trustworthiness was also a consideration for the generals, including President Thein Sein, who wants to serve another term, and perhaps General Than Shwe, at the head of the regime for 20 years, retired but still influential behind the scenes. Thein Sein and Thura Shwe Mann were already rivals, and in any case the decision seems to have been made that his alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi represented an outflanking manoeuvre that could not be permitted. The result is a disaster for Burma because it closes off the one remaining avenue, after Aung San Suu Kyi had been blocked from the presidency, through which a settlement could be reached that bore some relationship to the state of popular feeling in the country, gave her a substantial role, and would have allowed a gradual reduction of military influence.

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