Head of Myanmar ruling party removed in power struggle

Head of Myanmar ruling party removed in power struggle
Shwe Mann (L) with Myanmar president Thein Sein
PHOTO: Reuters

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar - The leader of Myanmar's ruling party has been removed from his post, an official said Thursday, after a shock police swoop on party headquarters that laid bare a power struggle among the country's key political players ahead of elections.

The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has been gripped by in-fighting in the run up to the November polls - billed as the freest and fairest for decades in the former-junta ruled nation.

After a night of high political drama which saw security forces enter the USDP base in Naypyidaw, Shwe Mann - who is also the parliamentary speaker - appeared to be the main target of a swift and decisive power play.

Recent months have seen intensifying rumours of animosity between Shwe Mann and President Thein Sein, both former generals who shed their uniforms to play central roles in Myanmar's reforms.

Thein Sein agreed to Shwe Mann's removal from his party role, Zaw Htay of the President's Office told AFP.

"This is just a party leadership affair, there is no reason to worry," he said, countering rumours Shwe Mann had been arrested.

The government was working "to stabilise public order," he added, without giving details.

Earlier, Shwe Mann's son told AFP his father's house in the capital had been surrounded by "so-called guards", following the police swoop late Wednesday.

"It is strange that armed forces have restricted a political party in this way," Toe Naing Mann added, saying he was monitoring the situation through contacts from Yangon.

About half a dozen police remained at the gate of the party's vast headquarters, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

Unexpected move

The surprise move comes a day before the deadline for candidates to register to contest the upcoming polls.

There were also signs that Shwe Mann was reluctant to support candidates loyal to the president and had not accepted some recently retired soldiers put forward by the powerful army.

Political tensions are seething ahead of the November 8 polls.

They are set to be contested by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was a thorn in the side of the previous junta regime with her years campaigning for democracy.

Shwe Mann had publicly welcomed the idea of working closely with Suu Kyi, whose party is expected to make strong gains at the looming polls.

He has also set himself up in opposition to the still-powerful army on key issues - including on constitutional reform debates that centre on reducing the military's political power.

A USDP source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information, earlier told AFP he believed the plan was to remove Shwe Mann as party leader and impose "a new party structure".

"We did not expect this. There were some disagreement inside the party, but that's all. This is not good - both for the party and also for the country's future," the source added.

Controversial 2010 elections brought a new quasi-civilian government which has ushered in sweeping reforms.

But concerns over the depth and pace of those reforms has mounted in recent months.

The USDP has been the vehicle for the former junta elites to metamorphose from soldiers to MPs.

On Wednesday, senior USDP member Aung Ko told AFP that the party had received "more than a hundred" applications from recently retired military officers and cabinet ministers looking to stand in the elections for the party.

But many of these had not been accepted into the party.

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