The USDP faces the people

This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 26 October 2015

During Myanmar’s dictatorial period, the regime’s civilian mass membership wing, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, had a bad reputation.

Back then the USDA was reputed to do some of the shadowy surveillance work that kept the population on its toes. Township headquarters were dotted around the country: authoritarian outposts, usually run-down, and in desperate need of some TLC.

The first time I had any useful interaction with the USDA was a decade ago, in a small town in the Kachin State. In a meandering conversation I recall the local USDA heavies proudly told me that Myanmar was on the road to democracy. It was just a matter of time, they implored. All those years back nobody really believed them.

That meant that in the lead-up to the 2010 general election the USDA’s transformation into the Union Solidarity and Development Party was widely ridiculed. As a vehicle for retiring military figures, provincial cadre and SPDC-era bureaucrats, it hardly looked like a party of reform.

When President U Thein Sein took power in 2011, the USDP was criticised for its old-style militarist mindset and for the narrow political gene pool that claimed its top positions. Building a new reputation has not been easy.

The first time I visited its headquarters on the southern edge of Nay Pyi Taw I recall being surprised by the subdued styling of the complex. It was hardly more luxurious than the Nay Pyi Taw Council Guesthouse where most ethnic and democratic politicians were staying at the time.

I have since come to learn that USDP legislators in Nay Pyi Taw range wildly in their personal orientation and background. An Australian National University PhD candidate, Chit Win, has led the analysis in this regard.

During the current campaign season USDP speakers insist that their party is responsible for bringing democracy to the country. They demand voters consider who has helped to make Myanmar richer and prouder. The answer they want to hear is “USDP”.

For ordinary USDP supporters attending these rallies, resplendent in their green uniforms, this chorus of incumbent privilege is a familiar one. It has long helped that the senior leaders are strict with their invocation of widely understood ideas about unity and belonging.

That unity was most recently tested when Thura U Shwe Mann, the current Speaker of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, was purged from his party positions. He remains a notional USDP candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw. This internal rearrangement saw U Thein Sein reassert control, with a new generation of senior military figures also well-placed to stay on top.

U Shwe Mann appears to have aggravated the wrong army players, perhaps even U Than Shwe, the former military regime supremo. Such are the risks of high-level politicking in a party apparatus still welded to the military machine.

But for the USDP high-ups, fighting an open election is a new kind of battle. In response to the challenge of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the party has tried to offer attractive local candidates.

While NLD voters are told to vote for the party, not the candidate, the USDP is banking on voters’ familiarity with township powerbrokers. As Chit Win has explained, this is one of the only ways they can possibly contend with the charismatic bonanza enjoyed by the NLD.

For its part, the USDP has not run an exciting campaign. It has been forced to accept that the history of military rule is not a bonus for most voters.

I wonder how long this will last. If you gaze across the border to Thailand you get an idea of where long-term power in Myanmar might come from. Since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932 almost all of Thailand’s prime ministers have come from a military or royal background.

The only exceptions have emerged in the past quarter-century, particularly when free and fair elections have occasionally been held. And even these figures have usually enjoyed tight links with new corporate or royalist networks. In Thailand there has been no meaningful break with the power held by old elites.

It would be quite surprising if, even in the medium term, Myanmar manages to find new types of people to hold its highest positions. In all likelihood they will continue to be drawn from the top rungs of the armed forces, from distinguished political lineages and from the other elite strata.

There is little chance that somebody without such political, social and economic backing will be in contention for a top job. This means that even after the USDP fades as a political force, its typical characters – retired generals, lifelong political apparatchiks and nationalist bureaucrats – will remain figures of great interest.

Just as the old dictatorship dissolved itself, so will the USDP eventually melt away. What will remain is the core of military power, as reflected in a nationwide network of cultural and commercial connections. Whatever happens, these connections are here for the long haul.

Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala.