Burma’s President Shakes Up the Chessboard

Why the president's cabinet reshuffle portends a new move toward reform.


This week, as expected, the Burmese parliament gave its seal of approval to the cabinet reshuffle launched last week by President Thein Sein. The president’s effort to rejuvenate his government is revealing. Though his government has been coming under fire from many directions lately, this isn’t a desperate or defensive move. The reorganization of the cabinet actually represents an attempt to kick-start the stalled reform process. Thein Sein’s choice of ministers shows that he is trying to centralize his administration even as he reduces the military’s presence in it.

More than a dozen ministers have been replaced or sacked, while more than twenty new deputy ministers have been appointed. More changes are in the pipeline, according to government advisors. Some of the more renowned hardliners in the cabinet — such as Construction Minister Khin Maung Myint and the oddly titled Minister for Electricity 1 Zaw Min — have been sacked altogether. Others, including Information Minister Kyaw Hsan and Tourism Minister Tint Hsan, have been demoted.

But the most important aspect of the changeover is the large number of civilians that have been brought in, especially as deputy ministers. Almost all of them are former academics, businessmen, and civil servants. In this array of talent tapped by the president, the new deputy economic planning minister stands out: Winston Set Aung, a businessman, academic, and consultant who has been advising the president on economic matters for the past year. Government insiders hint that there may be more economics-oriented appointments like this to follow.

When ministers were sacked or reshuffled in the past, they were usually replaced by serving military officers or former military men. That was how the military dictators controlled power and ensured the cohesive support of the commanders. Thein Sein (shown at left in the photo above, as he welcomed Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last month) has now decided to break with that long-standing tradition and make his executive truly civilian (at least as far as the members of his cabinet team are concerned).

This has delighted the international community and local businessmen alike. Not only are the new faces being brought into the government civilian by origin and nature, but many of them, like Winston Aung, are thoroughly committed economic reformers, according to Australian economic specialist Sean Turnell. Burmese businessmen are now busily preparing for the "gold rush" — the long-heralded influx of foreign direct investment from companies eager to get access to the country’s rich natural resources and low-cost labor force. There’s a general assumption that this process can only be accelerated by the president’s cabinet reshuffle.

In last week’s sweeping shake-up, Thein Sein replaced the ministers responsible for information, economic planning, finance, industry, and railways. The economic ministries are being transferred to the president’s office. Finance Minister Hla Tun, Economic Planning Minister Tin Naing Thein, Industry Minister Soe Thein, and Railways Minister Aung Min have all effectively been promoted and transferred to the president’s office to oversee the running of the economy. Four new ministries in the prime minister’s office have now been formally agreed by parliament.

But the cabinet reshuffle also manifests another facet of Thein Sein’s developing strategy (one that he may well have borrowed from his mentor, ex-strongman Than Shwe) — namely, the concentration of power in his own office. "It’s more a [government] re-organization than a reshuffle," said a government insider.

The four economic ministers will now oversee the country’s economic development from inside the president’s office. This means they will work directly under the president, which will free him up to concentrate on other matters, according to the president’s political advisors. It will increase their direct access to the president and give them greater authority.

"It’s all part of streamlining the decision-making process to make the president and his ministers more effective," says a government insider. But it is also a process of centralizing power in the president’s office by creating an elite team of ministers — a "super cabinet," if you will — that will take responsibility for much of the government’s administrative work.

Minister Soe Thein will continue to chair the powerful Myanmar Investment Commission, which oversees domestic investment projects and will play a major role in monitoring international ventures once the new proposed foreign investment law is finalized.

Massive changes to the Central Bank are also in the pipeline. It will no longer be under the finance ministry, but semi-autonomous, with the governor’s position raised to the ministerial level. The bank will be substantially expanded, the number of divisions increased, and the staff almost doubled to more than 2,500.

Several ministries are being merged or shut down. The government is closing the Industrial Development Ministry, which overseas planned industrial mega-projects, and transferring responsibility for them to the president’s office. Other ministries are being consolidated, including combining the two electric power ministries into one. The aim, according to the president, is to allow better supervision and cooperation to ensure adequate production and supply of electricity. Government insiders say that more reorganization of the civil service is also in the pipeline.

Another crucial change is the promotion of the former railways minister Aung Min to a minister in the president’s office commissioned with overseeing national reconciliation efforts. Apart from continuing his ceasefire mediation efforts with ethnic rebel groups, he will be responsible for encouraging Burmese exiles and expatriates to return to the country. He will also, reportedly, become a member of the national defense security council, and be given a measure of authority over the military.

The president’s cabinet reshuffle is only part of a broader strategy to build a wider consensus behind his reform process. It started with the appointment of a new vice president, the former naval commander Nyan Tun, after his predecessor resigned on grounds of alleged ill health. Nyan Tun is something of a Thein Sein clone: soft-spoken, fiercely loyal, and very cautious. But he will also steadfastly uphold the interests of the military, sources close to him say.

Nyan Tun’s appointment is essentially the army’s way of supporting the beleaguered president. They are committed to Thein Sein and his reform agenda, according to informed sources inside the military. In particular, the chief of the army, vice-senior general Min Aung Hlaing, has emerged as a staunch supporter of Thein Sein. He wants the democratic experiment to work — and Thein Sein needs all the help he can get. He is at loggerheads with parliament over constitutional issues. The democratic opposition is taking advantage of newly won media freedoms to agitate for change. The government’s war with the Kachin ethnic minority is intensifying, and recently achieved peace deals with other groups are developing cracks. Strikes, rural protests against illegal land grabs, and religious violence in the west of the country in Arakan have compounded the president’s impotence. Only the international community and the army seem to steadfastly support him.

His only hope now is that the greater emphasis on government efficiency will provide concrete results and clear the logjam in the reform process. "The battle between the hardliners and reformers has been exaggerated," a presidential advisor told me recently, on condition of anonymity. "The fault line is between competence and incompetence; between effectiveness and ineffectiveness," he added. The government must deliver on its promises, another insider said, and time is running out.

Many people have begun to wonder when they’re finally going to see the long-awaited "democracy dividend." Earlier last month, President Thein announced that the government’s immediate priority was to boost economic growth by 8 percent a year and provide real income growth for everyone. Many Burmese economists, though, believe the president’s plans are over ambitious and unrealistic, especially the proposed increase of per capita income to $3000 by 2015.

So while Thein Sein will retire at the end of his current term as president, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party knows that if they are to have any chance against the opposition — the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi — at the next elections in 2015, the government must improve peoples’ standard of living.

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