Former Generals, a Hotelier and More in Suu Kyi Cabinet

By Nyein Nyein & Kyaw Phyo Tha 22 March 2016

RANGOON — With 18 names put forward for 21 ministerial posts on Tuesday, the National League for Democracy has included a diverse but male-dominated array of technocrats, ethnic minorities, NLD loyalists and others not sworn to the party, evening selecting two members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) for the incoming cabinet.

From the USDP, Thein Swe, a party secretary, and the former central executive committee member Thura Aung Ko secured the blessing of NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party had said members of the outgoing ruling party would be considered for cabinet slots in a “national reconciliation” government.

Five experts and technocrats, seven NLD members—most prominently Suu Kyi, who is expected to take four portfolios—one ethnic party leader and three military selections round out the proposed cabinet.

With the NLD failing to explicitly assign any of the 18 names to specific ministries, speculation has focused on what formal role or roles Suu Kyi will play in a government that she has said she will ultimately lead through her chosen proxy, President-elect Htin Kyaw.

According to NLD sources in Naypyidaw, Suu Kyi will take four portfolios: the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Electric Power and Energy, and Education, as well as the recently streamlined cabinet’s President’s Office ministerial post. The Foreign Affairs Ministry was tipped in recent weeks as a likely Suu Kyi choice, affording her a seat on the powerful National Defense and Security Council (NDSC).

While a clearer picture may not be offered until Thursday, when lawmakers will discuss the proposed cabinet, several of the nominees have been confirmed for specific assignments.

The Lady’s Men

One demographic that fared particularly poorly was women: Suu Kyi is the lone female cabinet member. The party did a far better job in female representation for last year’s election, when nearly 15 percent of its candidates were women.

The five experts and technocrats are tipped to head up ministries covering the environment, industry, health, construction and media.

In terms of partisanship, two non-NLD parties were given cabinet seats, with Nai Thet Lwin of the Mon National Party assigned the Ethnic Affairs minister post, and the aforementioned USDP duo.

Thein Swe, a former major-general turned Lower House lawmaker representing the Ann Township constituency, won re-election to the same Arakan State seat in Burma’s Nov. 8 general election.

The 67-year-old has been picked to lead the Ministry of Labor, Population and Immigration. He was a minister of Transport from 2004-10, under Burma’s former military regime, and prior to that served as minister of the Prime Minister’s Office from 2003-04.

Thein Swe told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the NLD was acting in accordance with its policy of collaborating with different parties, individuals and experts in the aftermath of its landslide election win last year.

“As our party’s policy dictates, we are ready to work together for the national interest,” he said of his USDP affiliation, adding: “Now our collaboration will bring betterment of the state and the people.”

Thura Aung Ko, who was purged from the USDP leadership along with former parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann in August last year, is tipped to head the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture.

The 68-year-old is a former brigadier-general turned lawmaker, who served as deputy minister of Religious Affairs under military rule, which ended in 2011. He lost to his NLD opponent by a razor-thin margin of 49 votes in the November election, in Chin State’s Kanpalet constituency.

Among lawmakers for the military-backed USDP, Thura Aung Ko developed a reputation as one of the bloc’s more pro-reform lawmakers, late last year voicing support for a suspension of Article 59(f), the constitutional clause that bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her two sons hold British passports.

The political analyst Aung Thu Nyein, who works as a freelance governance consultant, said the nomination of representatives from outside the NLD’s ranks would be viewed favorably in the name of “national unity,” even if that meant former generals turned politicians.

“As the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have won the public trust, the public has reacted positively to whatever her arrangements [including USDP cabinet members],” he told The Irrawaddy.

That being said, “checks and balances on the cabinet, and the efficiency of the ministerial departments, are the key to successful governance,” Aung Thu Nyein added.

The analyst said he did not expect rapid change or improvements under the new administration, but rather gradual reform as the ministers-in-waiting grow more comfortable with their roles and responsibilities.

Asked about the possibility of Suu Kyi taking four portfolios, Aung Thu Nyein said: “If it happens, it would be due to the uniqueness of the 2008 military-backed Constitution.”

Part of that “uniqueness” allows the Burma Army to select three ministers for the security portfolios of Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs.

On Tuesday, the names of a trio of lieutenant-generals, Sein Win, Kyaw Swe and Ye Aung, were included in the cabinet roster, and they are expected to take the respective ministerial posts. Analysts have noted that these ministers’ ability and willingness to work with Suu Kyi will be critical to the success of the NLD’s five-year term.

Writer, Hotelier Among Others

Pe Myint is the odds on favorite to serve as the country’s next Information minister, a post in which he will be responsible for reforming an institution that for years has been synonymous with government propaganda. The NLD has not offered specifics on the Information Ministry’s future, but reforms could include privatization of the three state-run dailies it currently prints.

Born in 1949 in Thandwe, Arakan State, the ethnic Arakanese is a well-known writer and chief editor of Pyithu Ayay (People’s Affairs), a weekly journal focused on political issues. He is also the vice chairman of the Myanmar Press Council. Pe Myint graduated from the Rangoon Medical College in 1975 and worked as a general practitioner for more than a decade before transitioning into the realms of literature and media.

The retired CEO of a resort hotel at Shan State’s Inle Lake was named the next minister of Hotels and Tourism.

A family member confirmed to The Irrawaddy that Ohn Maung, the former CEO of Inle Princess Resort, internationally known for its corporate social responsibility initiatives and eco-tourism practices, was picked to handle a portfolio covering an industry that generates a major share of the country’s foreign exchange and is expecting continued rapid grow in the coming years.

“I think he was picked for his 40 years of experience in the hotel and tourism sector. But when it comes to making decisions, he will seek advice from experts to make the best judgment, I think,” said the family member.

Ohn Maung was not available for comment on Tuesday.

Ohn Maung, 68, is an NLD member and was an elected lawmaker from his native Nyaung Shwe in Southern Shan State during the 1990 election. He is no stranger to the tourism industry, starting the first and at the time only guesthouse in the town in 1976. In 1998, his family opened the Inle Princess at a quiet inlet on the eastern shore of the lake, still one of the first hotels on the lake at the time.

Managing the nation’s coffers will be Kyaw Win, tapped to serve as minister of Planning and Finance after a decades-long career in the civil service that dates back to 1972.

He pointed to his lengthy career in the National Planning Ministry and later Internal Revenue Department as reason for his selection.

“The NLD leadership have a policy to put the right man in the right place. I think I was assigned because I deserve it,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Htet Naing Zaw contributed reporting from Naypyidaw.