Thein Sein extends olive branch to Parliament Speaker

Mr Thura Shwe Mann wants to bid for the presidency in the 2015 elections.

MYANMAR - Moving to calm friction with Myanmar's powerful Speaker of Parliament, President Thein Sein in a radio address appealed for mutual "deference" and a "constructive perspective" in his office's relationship with the legislature.

Increasing friction between the executive and the ambitious Speaker Thura Shwe Mann has led to stalling of some reforms in Parliament.

More importantly, it has created tension in the power structure, at a time when the country's democratic transition remains a fragile two-year experiment.

In his monthly address on Sunday, Mr Thein Sein said the friction was natural in Myanmar's new political system, particularly in the early stages of transition.

He added: "Instead of blaming each other in counter-productive ways, we must learn from this experience to establish new approaches, communication channels and frameworks that allow us to work together better."

There was no reaction to the speech from Mr Shwe Mann.

Analysts noted that the President was probably buoyed by the support of appointed army MPs in Parliament just days before, when in an unusually heated debate they challenged the Speaker, signalling that the army would still rather back Mr Thein Sein.

The ambitious 66-year-old Mr Shwe Mann, a former top general like the President, wants to bid for the presidency in the 2015 General Election. Political manoeuvring with an eye on the election has already begun.

Mr Shwe Mann's vehicle will be the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

But the 68-year-old President, though he has shown no interest in another term, remains a wild card. Political pundits say the USDP and the army would support him because of his popularity.

Mr Shwe Mann has been grabbing the limelight by asserting himself while elected MPs under him are seeking to use their clout. To some degree, this is normal in a democratic system, analysts say.

"The MPs are learning the ropes, and Parliament is trying to focus on the executive, to check what it is doing, so logically there is tension," said Mr Renaud Egreteau, co-author of a new book on the Myanmar army's role in the democratic transition, Soldiers And Diplomacy In Burma.

Mr Shwe Mann has in recent months questioned several of the reformist President's initiatives, demanding for instance that Parliament be included in peace negotiations with armed ethnic groups. The President's negotiators were forced to agree to keep Parliament more informed.

But tension boiled over last week when normally passive military officers, who occupy 25 per cent of seats, challenged the Speaker and USDP members. The argument grew so heated that the Speaker suspended the session.

The dispute was over a proposed Bill which if passed would mean lawmakers losing their seats if 1 per cent of their constituents made complaints about them, and which is opposed by Mr Shwe Mann and USDP lawmakers.

Behind this and Mr Shwe Mann's challenges to the President is a power struggle that analysts say is destabilising.

"This is not an ideological power struggle, it is personal; Shwe Mann believes he should have been president," says Mr Larry Jagan, Mr Egreteau's co-author.

"There is no question in my mind that Shwe Mann is using Parliament to destabilise President Thein Sein's government. But the army still backs Thein Sein."

nirmal@sph.com.sg

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