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Commentary

Sweeping Changes Ahead as Burma Prepares for 2015

Burmese President Thein Sein is preparing to clean house with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi tipped to become a parliamentary speaker.


RANGOON — Burmese President Thein Sein is preparing to clean house and touted changes may even see iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi become one of the two parliamentary speakers.

Such reform is crucial for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) after its humiliating defeat by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in the recent by-elections, and especially looking forward to the national polls in 2015.

A huge overhaul of government is in the pipeline, including removing many of the hardliners from the cabinet, retiring or firing deadwood in the bureaucracy and significant shifts in policy.

Thein Sein hinted at the direction and extent of the planned changes at last week’s cabinet where he spelt out his government’s strategy for the coming months.

The immediate catalyst is the resignation of Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo earlier this month for health reasons. But sources close to Thein Sein say that the president came back from Tokyo last month invigorated and hell-bent on implementing his planned changes.

Although Tin Aung Myint Oo sent his formal resignation letter to Thein Sein on Thursday, May 3, his demise has been on the cards for months. It is sometime since the publicity-seeking vice-president has been seen in public or the local media—not even state-run The New Light of Myanmar or MRTV.

Tin Aung Myint Oo recently went to Singapore for medical treatment and is believed to have been diagnosed with throat cancer—he is renowned to be a very heavy smoker. Since his return he has stayed in a monastery, from where he submitted his resignation.

But sources close to the president say Tin Aung Myint Oo was facing the chop anyway, and his resignation was only a pretext to help everyone concerned save face.  It was the vice-president’s close affiliations with the Chinese and his continued support for the Myitsone Dam project in the north of the country—which Thein Sein suspended late last year—which led to his downfall, according to diplomats in Rangoon.

So far there has been no official announcement—although his chair was conspicuously empty at Friday’s cabinet meeting in Naypyidaw—as his departure cannot be confirmed before Parliament is informed, according to one of the president’s advisors. So for the present Tin Aung Myint Oo remains on leave.

Of course, Parliament is currently in recess—with many of its MPs touring various parts of the world including Australia, Europe and Japan. Under the Constitution, the president has to announce the vice-president’s stepping down to a joint sitting of the Union Parliament within seven days of accepting his resignation. So there will have to be an emergency session of Parliament within 21 days, according to a government adviser. Only after that can the process of replacing Tin Aung Myint Oo begin.

It is unclear at present if this will happen before the end of the month, when Thein Sein will travel to Thailand to attend the regional World Economic Forum in Bangkok, or early June before Aung San Suu Kyi travels to Norway, the UK and France—with a possible lightening visit to Geneva at the end to attend an International Labour Organization conference.

In the meantime there is a flurry of activity in the capital as the president’s plans to revamp his administration and replace the vice-president are put in place. This should be complete within the next few weeks.

Rumors of a major cabinet reshuffle, fuelled by hints from senior government advisers, have been circulating for months. This comes amid reports of a bitter battle between liberals and hardliners in the government, which have been strenuously denied by the president himself. Nevertheless, major changes to the cabinet and government policies are in the pipeline, according to advisers.

The massive victory of the NLD in the April 1 by-elections has made government changes inevitable—and made the position of hardliners even more untenable. But first Thein Sein must deal with the replacement for Tin Aung Myint Oo—who is seen by many as a hardliner, though in recent months began to swing in behind the president, according to sources close to him.

Shwe Mann, the current speaker of the Lower House and the third most important general in the old regime, is being widely tipped to become the next vice-president. Under the Constitution, the group who nominated Tin Aung Myint Oo—the military bloc of 25 percent across both houses—must now nominate his replacement, which would then be voted on by a joint sitting of the Union Parliament.

This makes Shwe Mann’s appointment even more likely, as soldiers in Parliament have looked to him for guidance and direction over the last 12 months. Recently some 60 relatively junior military MPs were replaced by senior representatives from the army—many of who are on the verge of retirement. Their allegiance is even more likely to be to Shwe Mann, who was probably the highest regarded senior officer in the army before his forced retirement.

But Shwe Mann has become a thorn in Thein Sein’s side as Parliament battles with the president over legislation and the Constitution, and so moving the speaker to vice-president would help calm the personal feud between the two of them. This would also give the ambitious politician a better springboard for the 2015 elections and assuming the presidency, as Thein Sein has repeatedly told government insiders he will not be seeking a second term of office.

Then there is the vexed question of who will be selected to fill the vacant role of speaker of the Lower House—who in turn becomes the main speaker in the middle of next year—if Shwe Mann moves up in the hierarchy. This has become a very powerful position now, as Parliament has become a significant political institution and has not been shy of flexing its muscles under Shwe Mann’s leadership.

Government insiders have for months hinted that Thein Sein favors giving that post to Aung San Suu Kyi—now that she is a parliamentarian. Diplomats in Rangoon are skeptical saying she has repeatedly told them that she would not take an administrative post in the government.

The Nobel Laureate is particularly keen to pursue the political role of an MP and be a watchdog on government action—or inaction—and policies, which as speaker she may be in a better position to do than as the minority leader in Parliament.

As yet it is unclear if the president will follow the counsel of his senior advisers, or if The Lady would even accept the offer.

But underlying all the political maneuvering is the more critical question of the forthcoming cabinet reshuffle. Thein Sein, according to sources close to him, is wrestling with various options. The most critical is whether members of the NLD—apart from Suu Kyi—might be offered ministerial posts. More civilians or civil servants are also being considered for less politically sensitive posts—like the planned new minister for aid coordination in the President’s Office.

In light of the April by-elections results—though it was on Thein Sein’s mind even before that—it seems likely that liberals in the cabinet will be strengthened at the expense of hardliners. There has been mounting speculation that the shuffle is now imminent after several trips abroad—including the minister for electric power-2 who was scheduled to visit to the UK and Switzerland—were canceled more than a week ago on the president’s orders.

But there is more on the drawing board than simply moving the ministers around. Thein Sein plans a major shake-up of the government bureaucracy and particularly economic policies. Advisers have been telling the president for months that there is too much deadwood in the civil service and their inertia needs to be tackled as a priority.

The International Monetary Fund’s chief has also warned the Burmese leader that the greatest obstacle to a successful democratic transition is the dearth of expertise and experience in the country—a “lack of capacity” as international donors prefer to call it.

The other issue is the continuing ethnic conflict in the country—especially in Kachin State. This in part is the main purpose of the revamped peace negotiating team—now to be led by second Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham and Railways Minister Aung Min—which will be moved to the President’s Office without a specific portfolio. But now the peace process will be under the direct authority of Thein Sein himself.

This is going to be a high priority for the government’s new agenda. “Peace and development without corruption,” is how one adviser put it. The impetus for these changes—though in reality not so much a change as making them Naypyidaw’s top priority—was the president’s recent visit to Tokyo.

During his trip the Japanese government announced the resumption of overseas aid and the cancelation of some US $4 billion of debt owed to Japan since before 1988. Japanese ministers and entrepreneurs strongly encouraged Thein Sein to bring lasting peace to the country and stamp out corruption, if Japanese businesses were to go ahead with their planned multi-billion dollar investment schemes.

So now Thein Sein has to put into practice much of what he promised. He has already quietly started an anti-corruption campaign, with the first target the country’s fisheries industry. Previous Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein and former Industry-1 Minister Aung Thaung—both senior members of the USDP—are currently being investigated by the commerce, finance and border affairs ministries for alleged corruption that is estimated to be in the region of eight billion dollars over the last ten years.

Whether they stand trial for their crimes is by no means certain. However, this and the by-election debacle will be used by Shwe Mann—nominally acting chairman of the party—to clear out the USDP’s old hardliners in preparation for the 2015 election campaign.

Larry Jagan is a former BBC regional correspondent based in Bangkok who extensively covers Burmese issues.