10/26/2013, 00.00
MYANMAR

Thein Sein's decision not to run paves the way for a challenge between Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann in 2015

Francis Khoo Thwe
Myanmar's current president will not seek a second mandate and will leave active politics, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann said in announcing his decision to replace him, likely against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, the constitution will have to be amended if the Nobel Prize laureate wants run for the highest office. Meanwhile, reforms are "very slow".

Yangon (AsiaNews) - Myanmar President Thein Sein, who led the reform process in the past two years, will not run for a second mandate in 2015, this according to Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house and head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). His likely adversary will be Aung San Suu Kyi. Like her, Mann wants the constitution amended to allow the country's main opposition leader to run.

With Thein Sein's not seeking re-election, Speaker Mann said that a period of four years will come to a close. During this time, Myanmar pursued a more open foreign policy, tentatively adopted democratic and economic reforms, released many (but not all) political prisoners and sought peace with the country's ethnic minorities. Because of these changes, most US and European trade and diplomatic sanctions have been lifted.

In addition to announcing his retirement, the 68-year-old outgoing president said that he would not oppose an Aung San Suu Kyi candidacy. At the same time, his decision not to run again opens the way for Shwe Mann, one of three top generals. Although he is now "regarded as a moderate with reformist credentials", he is still well connected with the military.

Last May, Mann took over from Thein Sein as USDP leader. For the first time, he expressed support for amendments to the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president. "For free and fair elections in 2015," he said, "we should amend Section 59F of the Constitution".

In an interview with The Irrawaddy Magazine, a dissident publication, he showed a softer side, like that of a well-oiled politician rather than a once feared general.

Touted to be General Than Shwe's pick for the 2011 elections, he became instead the speaker of Myanmar's lower house of parliament, where he honed his political skills, becoming a patient and shrewd leader, playing a major role on the national scene, with good connections among top military brass but also open to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Although he expressed optimism that the country's controversial 2008 Constitution could be amended, he agrees with Suu Kyi that it is one of the world's most difficult national charters to change.

More recently, Shwe Mann has openly criticised President Sein's performance (and that of his government) on a number of occasions, but he has never questioned their authority.

Whilst pushing for faster reforms, he has expressed doubts about a quick peace with all of the country's ethnic minorities, blaming their leaders for putting their own interests ahead of those of their people.

In 2015, Myanmar will elect a new parliament, which will in turn elect a new president replacing Thein Sein, a former general who served as prime minister at the time of the Burmese military junta.

After decades of dictatorship, the country held its first (partially free) elections in 2011, followed by a series of by-elections in 2012. National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi, leader, who spent 15 of the previous 22 years under house arrest, was one of those elected on that occasion.

Aung San Suu Kyi said on several occasions that she would run for president, even though existing rules bar her.

A recently appointed 109-member parliamentary committee has been tasked with amending the 2008 constitution (adopted at the height of Cyclone Nargis).

A new charter could grant ethnic minorities greater autonomy in the respective states (Kachin, Karen, Shan, Chin, etc),

However, some observers noted that the process of change so far has been slow. For Aung San Suu Kyi, without constitutional reform before 2015, an unfair election could result in a "fake democracy."

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