‘Ethnic Affairs’ Portfolio Created, MOI Survives in NLD’s Ministry Pruning

By The Irrawaddy 17 March 2016

RANGOON — A proposal by President-elect Htin Kyaw to reduce the number of ministries in his incoming government was put forward at the Union Parliament on Thursday, with the plan seeking to shrink the executive branch from its current 36 ministries down to 21.

One new ministry is proposed, with a portfolio covering “ethnic affairs,” in what is viewed as a nod to the incoming National League for Democracy’s pledge to make national reconciliation among Burma’s many ethnic groups a priority.

Surviving under the proposal is the Information Ministry, an institution that had been tipped for potential elimination and which has had a long and at-times fraught relationship with the country’s pro-democracy movement, given to serving as a formidable public relations apparatus for the outgoing military-backed government and the junta that preceded it.

Members of Burma’s private media had voiced support for scrapping the Ministry of Information, while outgoing Information Minister Ye Htut late last year urged caution on the matter, saying the welfare of its 7,000 employees should be considered.

Under Htin Kyaw’s proposal, some existing ministries would be subsumed into others, while several would be eliminated altogether.

Six ministries under the President’s Office, Ministry of the President’s Office Nos. 1-6, would be combined into one.

Burma’s Sports Ministry would be eliminated, with that portfolio, in its current form or reduced in scope, likely to become a department under one of the 21 ministries put forward on Thursday. The same is likely true for the current Ministry of Cooperatives, which does not make an appearance on the proposed list, nor does the Ministry of Science and Technology. The existing Ministry of Mines would appear likely to see its portfolio subsumed by the proposed Ministry of Resources and Environmental Conservation.

Merged are portfolios on religion and culture. So too with agriculture, irrigation, livestock, fisheries and rural development—the latter three currently form one ministry, with agriculture and irrigation administratively delineated as a separate portfolio; energy and electric power; transportation and communications; and national planning and finance.

A reduction of government ministries was one pledge put forward in the NLD’s election manifesto, “in order to decrease government expenditure and establish a lean and efficient government.”

The proposal submitted to Parliament did not provide information on expected savings, or offer details on how the administrative shakeup would play out. The NLD has previously sought to assuage concerns that the structural reforms would lead to significant redundancies among the ranks of Burma’s civil servants.

Lawmakers will begin deliberating the proposal on Friday. With the Union Parliament heavily stacked in favor of the NLD, it remains to be seen whether the incoming government’s first major policy proposal offers an opportunity for spirited chamber debate or a rubber-stamp for Aung San Suu Kyi, who has said she will be calling the shots via her proxy, Htin Kyaw.

Mann Aung Pyi Soe, an ethnic Karen who is deputy chairman of the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party, told The Irrawaddy that the proposed Ethnic Affairs minister post was a welcome addition to the cabinet, though he added that he would reserve judgment on whether the post will facilitate national reconciliation efforts until more specifics are known about the portfolio.

The ministerial position is one of 18 that Htin Kyaw will appoint, with three security portfolios’ ministers chosen by the military. Mann Aung Pyi Soe said he assumed the future Ethnic Affairs minister would be an ethnic minority, while acknowledging that even then the role would present inherent challenges.

“For example, if the NLD appointed that position from Shan or Burmese or someone else, he may know well about his own ethnic affairs, but what about others? I reckon he couldn’t.”