“Ex-Generals’ Parties: A New Trend of Party Politics in Myanmar?” by Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2019/67, 15 August 2019
The National League for Democracy (NLD) government has been in power since 2016, and Myanmar is now heading towards general elections due in 2020. Two new parties, the Union Betterment Party (UBP) and the Democratic Party of National Politics (DPNP) — registered in April and May 2019 respectively — are entering the electoral domain.
The chairmen and many senior members of both the UBP and the DPNP are former military officers. The parties join the new club of ‘ex-generals’ parties’, of which the formerly ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the most senior member.  

Myanmar was under military or military-dominated regimes for decades. The situation changed only after with the start of a limited form of ‘democratic’ transition in 2010.
The USDP, a spin-off of the 1988-2011 military regime and the largest ex-generals’ party in Myanmar’s post-independence history, ruled during the first five years of the transition— from 2011 until 2016.
The UBP’s chairman is a retired general, Thura Shwe Mann — the USDP’s former chairman and the former speaker of the lower house of parliament. However, the UBP is not necessarily a spin-off of the USDP.  ‘Personal’ problems between Thura Shwe Mann on the one side and former General and then President Thein Sein and the military on the other allegedly led to the purge of the former in August 2015,  notably three months before the 2015 general elections.
The DPNP’s chairman is retired Lieutenant General Soe Maung, who is reportedly close to former junta chief and retired Senior General Than Shwe. The latter was the architect of the Myanmar’s transition, a process over which the military retains considerable influence. Also, U Soe Maung was president’s office minister in the U Thein Sein government. The DPNP is thus more likely to be a spin-off of the USDP, although U Soe Maung denies it.   
The USDP, which now holds a minority of seats in the parliament, positions itself as the opposition to the ruling NLD both within and outside the legislature. In recent years, the USDP has increasingly taken a xenophobic, ‘right-wing’ stance by loudly protesting over contentious issues, which include but are not limited to constitutional reform, the Rohingya population of Rakhine State and the Children’s Rights Law.
As for the UBP and the DPNP, they have been careful not to take strong positions against the ruling party. There are three important differences between them, evident in the reported comments of their leaders in the Myanmar-language media. First, in broad terms the UBP takes a relatively more ‘democratic’ position, while the DPNP seems to have the potential to join the USDP and other parties in their focus on identitarian issues relating to religion and the Rohingya. Second, the UBP does not oppose constitutional reform in principle, whereas the DPNP is for maintaining the constitutional status quo. Third, the DPNP seems to enjoy the close mentoring of U Than Shwe, while U Shwe Mann is most likely to be operating on his own.
The trajectories of the UBP and the DPNP as ‘new’ ex-generals’ parties indeed serve as a reminder of the fact that the NLD itself started out as an ex-generals’ party in September 1988. The founders of the NLD included retired General Tin Oo, retired Brigadier General Aung Gyi, and retired Brigadier General Aung Shwe, along with ‘civilian’ Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — herself the daughter of the founder of independent Myanmar’s military.
Whether the UBP and the DPNP will make significant electoral gains next year is difficult to say at this point. But the club of ex-generals’ parties is apparently growing and is likely to welcome new members as the 2020 elections approach.
Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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