Most of the reporting on Burma over the past year has focused on the rise of the democratic opposition and its attempts to challenge the government. This is understandable -- especially considering that the opposition is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the only Burmese politician to enjoy global recognition.
But there's another conflict going on that could well end up having an even greater impact on Burma's liberalization efforts. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which governs Burma, is on the verge of splitting. A bitter power struggle is unfolding within the party between President Thein Sein and conservatives opposed to his reformist agenda out of fear that it will reduce their political and economic influence in the country. There are many Burmese who would undoubtedly welcome the news of the party's collapse, considering that it has, in its various guises, dominated political life for so long. But, in fact, a fragmenting USDP is likely to do more harm than good to Burmese democracy.
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The battle that's currently under way revolves around two personalities: the president and the powerful speaker of the lower house of parliament, Shwe Mann (pictured above). In early October the USDP held a long-overdue national convention that ended up reappointing Thein Sein as the party's leader. This outcome came as a surprise, since many observers were expecting Shwe Mann to take the reins so that he could lead the party into the next national election scheduled for 2015. "In effect the president has checkmated the speaker," said a senior government official.
But the president is elderly and ailing, while Shwe Mann is comparatively young and vigorous -- meaning that Thein Sein's retention of the top party post has done little to calm the troubled waters. While Shwe Mann says he approves of the reforms, he has a deep personal antipathy toward the president (now compounded by Thein Sein's move to retain the leadership of the USDP), and this has led him to join forces with the many conservatives who, behind the scenes, are desperate to prevent Burma's progress toward democracy. Above all, they are anxious that further liberalization could jeopardize their control over the country's economy. (The fact that the pro-government forces were trounced by the NLD in last April's parliamentary election probably hasn't made them feel any more secure.)
The sense of instability is aggravated by the rules of Burma's political game, which were laid out by the new constitution rammed through a sham referendum (2008) and then ratified by the parliament when it convened in Jan 2011. According to the constitution, 25 percent of the seats in the parliament are reserved for serving soldiers, who are essentially appointed to the assembly by the army chief.