The Start of a Second Wave of Reform, or a Sign of Trouble?

Burmese President Thein Sein delivers a speech in Parliament on April 6, 2011. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

A series of major changes in the lineup of President Thein Sein’s cabinet this week have been greeted with mixed reactions, as some observers welcome the moves as a boost to reforms, while others see only evidence of continuing disarray.

A total of nine ministers have been reshuffled since Monday, including a number of close allies of the president and some who are seen as hardliners opposed to his reform agenda. In addition, the head of the office of the Auditor General and at least one deputy minister have been reassigned.

Among the most important changes are the removal of Information Minister Kyaw Hsan—widely seen as an opponent of reforms—and the posting of the outgoing railways and industry ministers to the president’s office.

Kyaw Hsan, who was named the new minister of cooperatives, will be replaced by Aung Kyi, who previously acted as a liaison between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s former ruling junta.

“I think this is a hint that President Thein Sein will accelerate his ‘second wave of reform’ without delay,” said Aung Naing Oo, the deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thailand-based think tank.

“In a transition, it is no surprise to see those who are conservatives or opposed to reforms being left behind,” he added, echoing Thein Sein’s remark in mid-May that “conservatives who do not have a reformist mindset will be left behind.”

Others also welcomed the appointment of Aung Kyi as the new information minister, expressing hope that it would help speed up media reforms.

“U Aung Kyi is a moderate person who mediated with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We think his policy on the media will be softer than that of U Kyaw Hsan,” said May Thingyan Hein, the chief editor of Shwe Myit Makha, a Rangoon-based online news agency.

May Thingyan Hein said she was also pleased to see Aung Min, the former railways minister, moved to the president’s office, where he will continue to work closely with Thein Sein on efforts to negotiate an end to decades of conflict with ethnic armed groups.

“It is reasonable for him to be in the president’s office if he is dealing with the ethnic issue,” she said.

While outgoing Industry Minister Soe Thein, another Thein Sein ally, will also be joining the president’s office, Construction Minister Khin Maung Myint and Minister for Electric Power-1 Zaw Min have not been given new posts.

While both Khin Maung Myint and Zaw Min are regarded as hardliners, Zaw Min is a particularly controversial figure. Last year he spoke out strongly in favor of proceeding with the Myitsone hydro-power project in Kachin State, until Thein Sein ordered the suspension of the deeply unpopular project last September.

Zaw Min has also been accused of playing a key role in the May 1998 mass killing of 81 Burmese civilians, including women and children, on Christie Island, off the far southern coast of Burma.

By shoring up his support within his cabinet and shedding some of those who have opposed him, Thein Sein is moving to create a “super cabinet,” according to veteran journalist Larry Jagan.

But even as Thein Sein moves to strengthen his position internally, the timing of the reshuffle suggests that it is also a sign of weakness, said Jagan.

“He is doing this to deflect attention from the problems he’s facing,” said Jagan, noting that the government has come under fire for its handling of the recent violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State and other issues.

Naw Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the Karen National Union, agreed that the government appears to be struggling with a host of problems. Besides the clashes in Arakan State, fighting continues between the armed forces and Kachin rebels.

James Lum Dau, the deputy chief of foreign affairs for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), said he was not optimistic that the government reshuffle would do anything to end the conflict.

“Their strategy is just to eliminate the ethnic groups one by one. They are feeding some ethnic groups carrots while hitting others with sticks,” he said.

According to sources in Kachin State, a major offensive has been launched this week against the KIO’s headquarters of Laiza and the jade-mining area of Hpakant, another KIO stronghold, forcing thousands  of civilians to flee.

5 Responses to The Start of a Second Wave of Reform, or a Sign of Trouble?

  1. Sequence always causes consequence. I believe that President Thein Sein is determined to deal consequences. He has no choice in dealing this. As long as he is leading us in the right path, we the people are behind him fully. He must try to write a beautiful history of our days.

  2. Moving in the right direction. However there are questionable people in the cabinet. Capable deputy ministers cannot function well under a bad minister. Another worry sign is the growing number of ministers and deputy ministers again.

  3. I don’t see anyone better than President U Thein Sein to sorting out 50 years of problems in this country. He has to walk on very fine thin line between military and citizens. Especially President U Thein Sein can not upset Army. Burma will go back to even if Commander in Chief was upset.
    So I don’t expect democracy will be developed 75% in Burma after his term in President Office but no one can deny the situation in Burma is dramatically improved after President U Thein Sein 5 years in office. He knows how to deal with military. That’s an important thing in Burmese politic. In Burmese history, all Burmese kings were Commander in Chief.
    Even Than Shwe was given nickname as Bayin Yue (Crazy for to be King) by peoples in Burma.
    If you write or talk about Burma and then you can’t leave history of connection between Military and Kings. Min Aung Hlaing will not be too much different from his predecessors. Obviously Gen Min Aung Haling is thinking he is a head of state.
    That’s why we can not get genuine peace treaty with minority ethnics’ Army.
    So we shouldn’t upset Gen Min Aung Hlaing if we don’t want another 50 years under another dictatorships rule.
    The speed of reform in Burma is okay and smoothly. So I don’t see any incoming trouble by sending away hardliner ex military men because Kyaw San and other hardliners in Government is actually they were promoted by Than Shwe connection.
    Min Aung Hlaing will not be interfering with some of U Thein Sein decision because it does not direct affect on him. As long as President and Commander in Chief is getting along there will be no trouble in U Thein Sein Government.

  4. I don’t think Khin Maung Myint was hard liner or against President, because he was working under President Thein Sein in Kalay Myo. He got promotion becuase of his superior is promoting. I hope all the Minister vacant post should give to NLD and Ethnic minorities MP.

  5. The glass is half full! Be realistic about it. No one with a right mind will like to see Burma goes back to the bad old days.We all know that don’t we?
    Thein Sein is doing a good job and walking on a very tight rope at the same time. We must support him.
    Remember what the alternative to Thein Sein is. We know it don’t we?

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