By Aung Tun

Though the next election in Burma/Myanmar will be held in November 2015, almost three years from now, the election campaign is already more intense than expected. However, it is not just a campaign between the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); instead it has surprisingly become a sharp political contest within the ruling party itself.

Casual observers of the new political landscape in Southeast Asia’s newly established democratic state could be forgiven for understandably concluding that political contention within the ruling party is impossible. The ruling party, composed of and led by high ranking officers of the former military regime, has almost totally dominated the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches—thus short-circuiting the ‘checks and balances’ necessary if the Burmese democracy is to work both in practice and in theory. Given the overwhelming influence of the military in all three branches, it will be difficult to make ‘Burma’s democracy,’ which does “work” in some important ways, however limited, work if there was a real and effective system of checks and balances.

Burma President Thein Sein. Pic: AP.

There are several reasons for this complex political situation in Burma’s transition to democracy, a transition that the international community, perhaps a little hastily, has hailed as ‘one of the best models’ for authoritarian regimes like North Korean to follow. First, the 2008 Constitution (as is stated in Articles 63 & 232 (i)) mandates that those who assume executive or governmental positions such as the Presidency, the Vice Presidency, and ministerial posts are required to resign from their political party, no matter which party they belong to.

So technically there is no ‘ruling party’ in Burma. The purpose of this is to make sure that checks and balances work in practice.  It sounds great, yet it is difficult for the party that wins a majority in the parliament to attract voters in future elections through its governing performance since technically the government leaders do not necessarily represent the ruling party. The government, that is, represents itself. For instance, current president Thein Sein and his ministers are required to resign from the USDP and their efforts for peace accords with the ethnic minorities, for poverty reduction, and for reengaging with the West do not literally reflect the USDP’s performance or policies. In other words, they are constitutionally separated from each other. Thus, in order for the ruling party to do well in the next election, it needs new ways to attract voters.  Of course the USDP could (has and in the future will) claim the Thein Sein administration’s activities for itself to attract voters.

Some critical questions arise. Will Thein Sein and his ministers join the USDP for the 2015 elections? If they do, would the USDP accept them? Apparently, nobody knows the answers for certain.

However, the recent ‘democratic’ fight between the executive and the legislative branch has underscored that there is something beyond ‘checks and balances’ at work in Burma’s political setting. It is becoming clear that the ‘checks and balances’ is really a personality clash between President Thein Sein and the Lower House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann. At the present moment, both are are expected to run as presidential candidates in the 2015 election.

First, Thura Shwe Mann officially announced his interest in running for the presidency in the 2015 elections during the World Economy Forum on East Asia held in Naypyidaw in early June. This comes after he assumed the USDP chair, formerly held by President Thein Sein. Simply put, in order to secure the presidency Shwe Mann needs to show that he is as capable as or even better than the incumbent, especially in moving the ongoing democratic reform forward. For instance, answering a question from the Burmese community in California during the recent US trip —what score out of 100 points he would give himself on his ability and skills for undertaking national reconciliation, economic development, and peace process — Thura Shwe Mann proudly boasted, “I am confident that I’ve rated myself well 100% score on qualifications for the presidency!”

To win the presidency, the Speaker needs to pinpoint some possible weaknesses in the policies of the Thein Sein administration. In other words, he will only take credit for popular parliamentary actions he has overseen. For example, recently the president’s office issued a statement explaining how it decided how it granted permission to foreign telecommunication giants Qatar’s Ooredoo and Norway’s Telenor to develop the lucrative telecommunications market in the once-isolated country despite the reservation of the parliament.

The parliament wanted the Thein Sein Administration to delay granting permission until the new telecommunication bill was ratified by parliament. However, Thein Sein did not wait. The statement, a detailed explanation (relatively much longer than a regular presidential statement) that quotes earlier correspondence between Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, seems less like a normal presidential statement to the public than a declaration of war: “how we fight each other.” Later, the Parliament easily ratified the new telecommunication bill and the Speaker reportedly said,“This is typical practice between the executive and the legislative body in a democracy.”

At the same time, Thura Shwe Mann proposed convening the country’s National Defense and Security Council (NDSC).  The NDSC is perceived to be the most powerful governing body composed of the President, Vice Presidents, Commander-in-Chief, and other important ministers. The body is usually convened only during a state of emergency or to decide on national security matters such as releasing prominent political prisoners. The Lower House Speaker reportedly demanded that parliament have a direct involvement in the ongoing peace process with various ethnic groups. As a result, some parliamentarians from ethnic regions are included into the new peacemaking team. It is understandable that the Speaker wants voters to know what the USDP can do on several political important issues like the ethnic conflicts and the national reconciliation process, not just what the Naypyidaw government does.  Why has he called for involvement at this time? This perhaps could indicate that more is at work here than just the regular ‘checks and balances’ in a democracy.

Even more, there is a unique case that has never happened in any democracy on earth. In early February 2013, the Parliament surprisingly approved a proposal to investigate and discover the identity of the anonymous blogger—using the pseudonym Dr. Sate Phwar—who wrote “Above the Law,” an Internet article attacking the parliament for overstepping its boundary—coining the phrase ‘above the law.’  The media widely speculated that this case proves there is an intensifying fight between Thura Shwe Mann and Thein Sein. The case itself is more about personal dislike than anything else. There is widespread speculation that the blogger is a high-profile gentleman closely working with the President’s office. A couple of weeks ago, the Parliamentary investigation commission released its findings without specifically being able to identifying who Dr. Sate Phwar is —but also added a note warning him not to criticize the parliament again.

This case makes many Burma watchers wondering about the parliament’s priorities, for there are so many truly urgent problems to address. For instance, the parliament has yet to investigate who is behind the deadly communal violence between the Muslim and Buddhist communities that left tens of people dead and hundreds more ‘refugees’ inside the country. Given all this, the Dr. Sate Phwar case seems more like a personal contest between Shwe Mann and Thein Sein, not a matter of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.

Many questions that are vital for the ongoing democratic transition remain unanswered. For instance, how intense will the 2015 election campaign between Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the ruling party (USDP) be? Could a coalition between those two powerful parties be built, with each sharing power? The answers certainly depend upon the extent to which the controversial 2008 constitution can be amended. Despite all the uncertainties, two things are certain. First, there will be an intense internal contest within the USDP between Shwe Mann and Thein Sein; second, the 2015 elections will show how Burma’s democracy actually works, not how it is supposed to work

Aung Tun worked as a journalist inside Myanmar for several years and John Hess is a senior lecturer and a Burma/Myanmar watcher at University of Massachusetts Boston. Both are currently based in Boston.