U Than Htay, Min Aung Hlaing, U Khin Yi and U Thein Sein.
The recent reshuffle of the leadership of the Myanmar military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) reveals that the party is once again in the grip of a power struggle.
On September 14, USDP chair U Than Htay was replaced as acting chair by current vice chair U Khin Yi after a meeting of senior leadership that lasted three days. However, the ousting of U Than Htay has to be confirmed at the party’s conference, which is slated for early October.
In August 2015, a similar unexpected reshuffle occurred, when security forces entered the USDP headquarters in the capital Naypyitaw in what was dubbed the ‘midnight coup’. A day later, it was announced that Shwe Mann, the then speaker of the lower house of Myanmar’s parliament, had been removed as the USDP chair amid a growing rift with then President U Thein Sein.
Seven years later and the USDP is again in a similar situation, as the former generals who hold senior positions in the party jostle for power and influence ahead of the USDP conference, according to party sources.
The USDP is now divided into two camps — those loyal to U Than Htay and those urging his replacement. The group who want former Brigadier General U Than Htay out is believed to be backed by junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, according to members of the USDP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC).
U Than Htay has faced growing opposition in recent months. Senior USDP figures including U Maung Myint and U Hla Swe have openly criticized his leadership, while others including U Thaung Aye and U Myint Hlaing are finding fault with him within the framework of party rules and regulations.
Junta chief working behind the scenes
Last month, then USDP vice chair U Khin Yi was removed as the junta’s Minister of Immigration and Population, with Min Aung Hlaing reportedly wanting him to concentrate on preparing the USDP for next year’s proposed election, which the coup leader sees as a way out of Myanmar’s political crisis.
When U Than Htay underwent surgery for back problems in August, his opponents in the USDP saw that as an opportunity for him to step down of his own volition. But after U Than Htay refused to step down, a three-day meeting of the USDP’s CEC from September 12-14 resulted in U Khin Yi replacing him as acting chair of the party.
That has led some observers to call the apparent purge of U Than Htay a ‘midday coup’ in contrast to the midnight coup that ousted U Shwe Mann in 2015.
“It is a midday palace coup this time,” one U Than Htay opponent on the CEC said.
However, U Than Htay appears reluctant to relinquish the reins of power. He has continued to go to his office and his ousting was only revealed on September 20, when U Thaung Aye and U Myint Hlaing broke the news via a video call with USDP members.
Those who support U Than Htay say that he is only temporarily handing over his duties as party chair because of his health problems. But his issues with his back have not stopped U Than Htay from going to the USDP headquarters or from meeting with his supporters, an indication that he is going to fight to maintain his status in the USDP.
The power struggle is likely to continue until the party conference in early October, when a new leadership will be elected. But U Than Htay is unlikely to beat U Khin Yi, given that he appears to have lost the support of Min Aung Hlaing, said political observers.
“The fact that U Khin Yi was appointed chairman before the party conference is a message telling us who we should vote for at the conference,” said one CEC member.
Over 80 USDP members will vie to join the CEC at the October conference, with half of them becoming the senior leadership of the party for the next five years.
In recent times, USDP chairs including U Thein Sein, U Shwe Mann, U Htay Oo and U Than Htay were not elected at the party conferences, but hand-picked by former military dictator U Than Shwe, resulting in the party splitting into factions.
Ex-president U Thein Sein to use his influence
Now the USDP is again facing a future where different groups are vying for power. Some senior USDP figures want former president and USDP chair U Thein Sein to use his influence and intervene.
“We are asking Uncle U Thein Sein to help choose the new chairman,” a senior party member told The Irrawaddy.
But the choice appears to have been made earlier this summer, following Min Aung Hlaing’s meetings with U Than Shwe and U Thein Sein.
Although U Thein Sein apparently wants to stay away from politics like his mentor U Than Shwe and has avoided publicly commenting on the USDP’s power struggles, he was behind both the midnight coup that ousted U Shwe Mann and the replacement of U Than Htay earlier this month.