Myanmar's tense political purge plays out in Facebook posts

Shwe Mann, the ousted party chairman, who appeared after two days of silence to reassure his followers in a Facebook post.
Soe Than WIN

YANGON, Myanmar — Frightening political purges still happen in the "new" Myanmar. But instead of disappearing for years, now ousted officials write pensive posts on Facebook.

At night on Aug. 12, authorities sealed off the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP. State security forces reportedly drew their guns and prevented officials from leaving. As night turned to day and the party’s chairman, Shwe Mann, still hadn’t been heard from, the words "purge," "putsch" and "coup" were used to describe what had happened.

Myanmar’s history is full of politicians falling out of favor in dramatic fashion. So while the country shed 49 years of military rule in 2011, last week’s events felt like history repeating itself.

Except for one thing: the internet.

After almost two days of silence, Shwe Mann appeared — not in chains but online.

Shwe Mann's first Facebook post after his ouster.

In his Facebook post, he was sitting in what appeared to be his office at parliament. The book “How Successful People Think” by leadership guru John C. Maxwell was on his desk. His post started out with “to the people.”

“I appreciate the people who asked about me with kindness, love and sympathy. I respect and value the love and kindness of people and I'll work for the benefit of people until my last days.”

Since when do high-powered Burmese officials with ambitions to be president get purged and update their Facebook status?

About a year ago, two foreign telecommunication firms rolled out new networks, helping drive down prices for expensive sim cards. Myanmar went from one of the least connected countries in the world to a land of golden pagodas and smartphones.

It hasn’t been without downsides.

Facebook has been used to stir up nationalist fervor and incite religious violence. But it has also provided much-needed organizing tools for activists. Inevitably, lawmakers and officials have harnessed it in ways that weren’t possible before. A much-anticipated election in November will be the first to take place in the new social media normal.

“There’s a big difference in comparison to 10 years ago. Politicians can reach out to the people more freely now,” said Myat Thu of the Yangon School of Political Science, stressing that many don’t feel sympathy for Shwe Mann because he hasn’t proven himself able to effect much change in office. He is also still viewed as a member of the old guard, with a less than stellar human rights record.

Shwe Mann — who for the time being continues to hold on to his role as speaker of the lower house in parliament and his party membership, though the positions seem far from secure — wasn’t the only one to update his status.

A day after the showdown in Naypyidaw, Aung Ko, an ally of the ousted official, channeled Bob Marley on his page. Though technically he referred to him as “Bob Merley.”

“Get up, Stand up,” he wrote, slightly misquoting the rest of the chorus: “follow up your right.”

But the posts cut both ways.

In an early morning update after the confrontation, Minister of Information Ye Htut posted a picture of an overcast sky.

“[Myanmar's capital] Naypyidaw has fine weather even though it is cloudy,” he wrote cryptically on his page, which is followed by nearly 250,000 people. “I’m walking while remembering a song called ‘the weather is fine.’ I couldn't take a walk for a long time as the weather wasn’t fine.”

Floodwaters have inundated Myanmar over the past month, but few believe he was really talking about the weather.

This week he was far less subtle.

In a post on Wednesday, he copied out a quote widely attributed to both Thomas Paine and George Patton.

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”