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Military's Win Puts Myanmar's Transition To Democracy In Question


The military-backed government of Myanmar has allowed opposition politicians a voice over the last few years. But troubling events this week suggested that the heralded transition to democracy may be in trouble. Thursday, the leader of Myanmar's military-backed ruling party was abruptly removed from his post in the middle of the night. Michael Sullivan has our report.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Shwe Mann was both a former general and one of the most powerful men in the country before and after the military ceded power to a nominally civilian-led government in 2011. Until Thursday, he was also seen as a leading candidate for president in the general election scheduled for November. A pragmatist, an opportunist, a man, as one diplomat told longtime Myanmar scholar Bertil Lintner, who was the perfect bridge between the old military establishment and a new democratic Burma.

BERTIL LINTNER: And I said yes, and that's also his death warrant.

SULLIVAN: And that's because many in the military still aren't on board with this whole democracy idea. And Shwe Mann, he tested their patience sorely, even going so far as to forge an alliance of sorts with a woman he helped keep in detention for nearly two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, National League for Democracy.

LINTNER: I mean, he wasn't close to Aung San Suu Kyi because he supported her ideas, but he was close to her because he wanted NLD support to become the next president. And only a few months ago, we were talking about changing the constitution to reduce the power of the military. That was not popular with the military, so it was obvious that he was out of line, and they decided to get rid of him.

SULLIVAN: Aung San Suu Kyi can't become president. The military-drafted 2008 constitution bars her from the office. Now that his rival has been removed, President Thein Sein, another former general, appears to have a clear path to a second term. The constitution reserves a quarter of the seats in parliament for the military-effective veto power. And even though Suu Kyi's party is expected to do well in the election, there's disharmony there, too. Many analysts, Lintner included, are baffled at her decision not to form an alliance with other opposition groups, such as the 88 Generation, to challenge the military-backed ruling party in November.

LINTNER: It's total insanity because if you look at the election, the only way the opposition would have a chance to challenge the military would be if there was an alliance between NLD, the 88 Generation and the so-called ethnic parties.

SULLIVAN: Not that it matters in the short term. The 2008 constitution gives the military the ultimate power, power it displayed decisively in removing Shwe Mann earlier this week. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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