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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Campaign Kicks Off

Thi Ha Thwe

Sep. 8, 2015

The campaign began on Tuesday for the general election scheduled for November 8th in Myanmar. It's the first general election since the end of military rule. Candidates and supporters will spend 2 months drumming up votes.

The poll is likely to pit the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, against the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The USDP is backed by the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi said the election will be a crucial turning point for the country. She said that for the first time in decades, the people will have a real chance of bringing about real change -- and it's a chance that they cannot afford to let slip. Her party won a landslide victory in the election of 1990. But the military government refused to recognize the results.

Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest during the 2010 election, which her party boycotted. She was released 6 days after balloting ended.

Media reports put the NLD ahead of the USDP, which is in the grip of a power struggle for the post-election leadership.

The building that was the headquarters of the ruling USDP on the night of August 12th was suddenly sealed off by security forces. Senior party members continued discussions until the early hours of the following day. The USDP made a sudden decision to remove Shwe Mann as party chairman.

President Thein Sein, who is willing to be the next president, ousted Shwe Mann, his rival for the post. State-run media made no mention of this political upheaval.

Aung San Suu Kyi criticized the incident. She said it's not what you would expect from a working democracy.

Why was Shwe Mann ousted? In recent years, he has been building good relations with Aung San Suu Kyi. He showed greater understanding toward Aung San Suu Kyi's call for constitutional reform than President Thein Sein.

The current constitution bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her late husband was a foreign national, as are her children.

The opposition bloc is widely predicted to achieve a win in the election, giving rise to discussions within the ruling party of a possible grand coalition. If this were to occur, a likely candidate for the new president would be the reform-minded Shwe Mann.

In a speech in the US in May, Shwe Mann showed a positive stance toward cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi. He said that despite being rivals, they are very good friends. He said he is prepared to cooperate with her to form an alliance between the ruling and opposition parties if it serves the national interest.

But among Myanmar's military -- the traditional base of the USDP -- suspicions began to grow that Shwe Mann was planning to sell the party to Aung San Suu Kyi in exchange for becoming president.

It was Shwe Mann's attempt to revise the Constitution that brought his confrontation with the military to a head. In Myanmar, 25% of the seats in parliament go to members of the military.

Constitutional reform requires approval by over 75% of the members, giving the military effective veto power. Shwe Mann submitted a proposal to the upper house to reduce this approval rate to 70%, thereby reducing the military’s parliamentary power. But the proposal was rejected by every military member in parliament as well as by the members of the ruling party.

When asked about the ousting Hla Swe, a USDP lawmaker said “Shwe Mann led the party in a direction completely different from the military’s stance. Thein Sein had no other choice but to remove him from his post.”

On the subject of whether Shwe Mann’s proximity to the opposition was a factor in it he said “Probably. Yes, I think so."

Four years after the transfer of power from the military to a civilian government, the ousting of Shwe Mann has highlighted the uncertainty of the country's democracy and the military's determination to hold onto power.

Sho Beppu spoke to the editor of an independent news organization covering Myanmar and South East Asia, Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Beppu: How do you see the recent ousting of ruling party chairman Shwe Mann by the president and the military? Do you see this as a kind of nervousness of losing ground in the coming election by the ruling party?

Kyaw Zwa: I think President Thein Sein and the military coordinated to purge Shwe Mann, and the reason is they really want to continue to rule the country after the upcoming election in November.

Beppu: Shwe Mann was seen as a man who is crucial to bridging the gap between the ruling party and the opposition. But following his ousting, how will this impact Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, and also the strategy of her party?

Kyaw Zwa: Even though Aung San Suu Kyi has him as a close ally, I don’t think his position can help her and her party a lot. Another thing is the NLD party is still quite popular among Burmese voters, so without Shwe Mann, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will not be in trouble in winning the majority in the upcoming election.

Beppu: President Thein Sein seems determined to keep the military’s influence of the country, but overall, do you think this election will lead to further democratic reforms in the country?

Kyaw Zwa: Now the challenge for our country is whether the military will honor the result of the election, if the NLD wins the majority. Even though the commander-in-chief of the military promised several times that he’ll honor the result of the election, we really have a tragic experience in 1990. In the 1990 election, the military didn’t honor the result of the election, because the NLD won by a landslide at the time. It really depends on the President and the military commander-in-chief how much they really want to bring about democratic reform in our country.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi spent years under house arrest during the military regime. Nearly half a century of strict military rule ended in 2011.

Since then, there have been reforms and a shift towards democracy. Now, as Asia's "last frontier," people are looking at the business opportunities in Myanmar.

So this election on November 8th will be a test to see if the country can go forward with its democratic reforms. Asia will be watching, along with the world at large.