Myanmar's President Thein Sein has replaced the head of the country's governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), party officials announced on Thursday, signaling a tightening of control by the country's military ahead of elections on November 8.
The USDP said in a statement that Sein had "allowed" Shwe Mann to "resign" because of his busy schedule as parliamentary speaker and party chair. Some reports have described guards surrounding Shwe Mann's residence, suggesting that he is under house arrest.
The media is describing his resignation as an ouster. It comes just three months before the country is due to hold its first free general election since the 2011 disbanding of the country's military junta, which marked the end of a brutal 50-year military rule.
Shwe Mann, who like Thein Sein is a former general, was expected by many to be his presidential successor. But as elections approach, it appears that the USDP and the country's military elite have grown uneasy about Shwe Mann's willingness to work with Aung San Suu Kyi, a widely admired opposition figure who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD).
"Over the last few weeks, Shwe Mann has been getting closer to Aung San Suu Kyi," David Camroux, a research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research and an expert in Asian politics, told VICE News.
The reshuffle, which involved other party officials, occurred shortly before the deadline for parties to submit candidate lists for the election scheduled for November 8. Despite the USDP's majority in parliament, some observers have predicted that the NLD party could make significant electoral gains.
Last month, Shwe Mann discussed Aung San Suu Kyi in an interview with the BBC.
"We have mutual understanding, trust, and an agreement that we will negotiate and coordinate together for the benefit of both the state and citizens," he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. She was held by the military authorities as a political prisoner for 15 years and otherwise barred from leaving the country. As a sign of thawing repression in Myanmar, her party was allowed to participate in parliamentary elections held in 2012, winning 40 of 45 contested seats.
Despite the strong showing, the 2008 constitution written by the military reserves a quarter of the seats in parliament to members of the armed forces. Because 75 percent of parliament must vote to amend the constitution, the military effectively holds a veto. This complicates matters for Aung San Suu Kyi because she is technically disqualified from becoming president.
Under the constitution, anyone whose spouse or child is a foreign citizen is barred from the office of president or vice-president — a clause that was drafted with Aung San Suu Kyi in mind. She had two children with the late British historian Michael Aris.
An attempt to lower the threshold for amendments to 70 percent, allowing for greater civilian control of government, failed in a parliamentary vote in June. The military bloc also voted down an amendment that would have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for the presidency.
According to Camroux, the limits dictated by the constitution lent an advantage to Shwe Mann, who might have been relying on an informal alliance with the NLD to secure support for a future presidential candidacy. Camroux was skeptical of the viability of such an alliance, however, explaining that many NLD officials who had been persecuted during the country's military rule might not look kindly on a political partnership with the former general.
It is not yet known whether a collaboration between the two politicians will go ahead now that Shwe Mann has been removed as party leader, nor is it clear if he will remain parliamentary speaker.
In 2015, the government signed a non-binding draft of a final peace agreement with armed rebel groups aimed at ending decades of violence. But despite those negotiations and the 2011 democratic reforms, Myanmar is still gripped by religious and ethnic tensions.