Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! As 2018 begins, the National League for Democracy [NLD] government has started reshuffling cabinet ministers. We can conclude that the NLD intends to replace ministers with poor records with able ministers. So far, it has replaced at least three ministers and it plans to change more. We’ll discuss whether the NLD government can appoint the right ministers to the right ministries and how it is likely to perform in the years to come. Political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein and Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ko Ye Ni join me for this discussion. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
The NLD government has reshuffled some regional ministers. The Irrawaddy Region chief minister was allowed to retire, while U Win Khaing, who was previously in charge of both the construction ministry and the electricity and energy ministry, will now lead only the latter. Vice-chairman U Aung Hla Tun of the Myanmar Press Council was appointed as the deputy information minister. And it is likely that there will be further changes. As I’ve said, the NLD seems to have had trouble putting the right people in the right posts over the past two years. Ministers may have the capacity, but seemingly have not been able to deliver on it. They have not performed well. Ko Yan Myo Thein, how do you assess these changes? Are they positive and what do you expect will happen next?
Yan Myo Thein: The NLD government’s performance has come up short in certain areas over the past two years. So, we cannot give it a passing grade. In fact, the public didn’t have high expectations [of the NLD government]. Some say that Rome wasn’t built in a day. But the current government has had a lot of trouble fulfilling even the public’s minimum expectations. Personally, I think this comes down to the capacity of individual ministers and, more importantly, the government’s policies, and it is necessary to review them.
Another problem is that there is a high level of centralization, or red tape, within the government. If it reviews that and starts a deregulation drive promptly and systematically, it will be able to reduce the burden on the people in the next two or three years. But simply changing the personnel [ministers], without changing the policies and procedures, is less likely to result in tangible changes — that is, reduce the burden on impoverished people — in the next two or three years.
KZM: The public’s hopes for the government weren’t high, but over the past two years people and the business community have repeatedly complained that the economy continues to decline. We don’t know yet about what changes will be made to the concerned ministries regarding this. What is your assessment, Ko Ye Ni? If the right people get put in the right places, would it still be still necessary to change the policies, as Ko Yan Myo Thein suggested?
YN: Firstly, the government has no clear policies for fulfilling its pledges. Its political policy is clear—its top priority is to achieve peace and end armed clashes. But it seems to have focused on that while neglecting economic reforms. Consequently, the business community and the public, the consumers, have put pressure on the government. To address the continuing economic decline, the government recently appointed U Set Aung as the deputy minister of national planning and finance. That was the first step in the cabinet reshuffle, and the most recent changes can be seen as the second step to accelerate the process.
There are certain restrictions in appointing ministers to the cabinet. When the government took office, it combined some ministries and reduced budgets. Ministers are overloaded with duties now, so the government has had to appoint deputy ministers to assist them. The problem now is that the new government has no choice but to choose from among those who worked in previous administrations to fill those positions. So, the unclear economic policy of the new government will be implemented by those who have worked in previous administrations, and I’m afraid things will be no different from what we’ve seen in the past two years.
KZM: Generally speaking, how old are government [ministers] internationally? The performance of a government depends on its youthfulness, I think. A government of old ministers may be highly experienced, but on the other hand it will be slow in making decisions either because of health or various other reasons. I have spotted such signs to a degree in the NLD government. How do you assess it?
YMT: As far as I recall, the average age of ministers was 66 when the NLD formed the cabinet in 2016. Later, it appointed younger ministers and the average age was still around 63, 64. The party doesn’t seem to be giving important positions to younger members. Our country has experienced decades of authoritarian rule. Consequently, we’ve lost a generation of political activists. Therefore, we need to build up this generation under this democratic government. Similarly, members of the younger generations should be given positions and opportunities either in Parliament or in the government. For example, most of the ministers appointed are experienced persons, and are former government officials, as Ko Ye Ni has pointed out. However, they are old and the government is somewhat of an “old” government. On the other hand, can’t the government appoint them as advisers to the ministries? If those who are in their 50s with strong political backgrounds were appointed as ministers, the government would be stronger, I think.
KZM: Are there any individuals with such qualifications?
YMT: Personally, I think there are. Some have studied abroad and come back to Myanmar in their 30s or 40s. But they need to get reacquainted with the history and politics of Myanmar. If they can do that and adapt well, they will become strong forces for change in our country, I think. The government, Parliament and the political parties need to rally them and groom them.
KZM: To be fair, it’s not too late. The government has been in office for less than two years. It will be just two years old in March. If the government puts the right people in the right places and embarks on new changes, it can still do a lot in the next three years. It was said during U Ne Win’s government that he chose “good and able men, rather than able and good men,” for his government. This means he valued loyalty over ability. To him, loyalty was the first priority and ability the second. In fact, those who are both good and able should be appointed to the government. Ko Ye Ni, how do you assess the appointments made by the current government in the context of these criteria?
YN: The successors of U Ne Win’s government, including the current government, haven’t been able to escape that formulation of “good and able men.” Because governments need people who are loyal to them.
KZM: Loyalty is important, isn’t it?
YMT: But what is really important is they must be loyal to the people. They must serve the interests of the people. Loyalty to the government doesn’t mean rubber-stamping whatever the government does. If the policies and procedures of the government put a burden on the people, they must stand by the people and point out and fix the government’s mistakes as necessary.
YN: Intellectuals and the intelligentsia are necessary to rebuild the state. For example, Irrawaddy Region Chief Minister Mahn Johnny is loved by the people. He is honest and is not reluctant to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty and is willing to go through thick and thin with the people. But the question is whether honesty is enough to reform the agriculture and livestock breeding sectors as promised by the NLD in the  election. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi always tells her ministers to have goodwill and empathy. But the question is whether goodwill and empathy alone can result in successful reforms. Maybe she wants to move to the next stage, and hopefully will replace those honest people with technocrats.
KZM: Loyalty to the people, impartiality and moral goodness should be the foundation. And based on that foundation, the capacity of technocrats is important. In fact, ministers are like corporate CEOs. They need to accomplish their duties in a timely manner. I think it is capacity, mainly, that is needed to effect change.
YMT: Another issue is the nature of technocrats. They don’t really seek ministerial or deputy ministerial positions. They want recognition. If you ask me whether most previous governments gave scholars important positions and also recognized them, I think they did. They give important positions to scholars, but only those who listen to them, do as they’re told and show total loyalty. What we expect from a popularly elected government is not scholars who consent to everything, but a government that brings together different perspectives and points of view. Only with a large gathering of such scholars will our economic reforms take off.
KZM: To summarize our discussion, ministers need to have the foundation that we’ve mentioned. Ministerial portfolios are political positions. They [ministers] hold positions of leadership and must make decisions. The vision of each minister will be important in that regard. Ko Yan Myo Thein, Ko Ye Ni, thanks for your contributions.