Is Burma's Hardline VP Feeling the Heat?

By The Irrawaddy 4 May 2012

One of the most powerful opponents of reform in Burma has been keeping a suspiciously low profile in recent weeks, fueling speculation that a shakeup at the highest levels of President Thein Sein’s government is imminent.

Vice-president Tin Aung Myint Oo, widely regarded as a key figure in the government’s hardline faction, has received little mention in Burma’s state-run press since rumors started circulating last month that Thein Sein was considering a reshuffle.

These rumors, which were recently reported by The Financial Times, are believed to be the reason for Tin Aung Myint Oo’s sudden absence from the spotlight at a time when all eyes have been on Burma’s Parliament.

According to official sources, the vice president—one of two serving under Thein Sein—returned to Burma today from a trip to Singapore, where he reportedly received medical treatment.

Citing sources close to the government, The Financial Times reported on April 20 that Tin Aung Myint Oo was among several hardliners slated to be “moved to different roles or have their responsibilities reduced” over concerns that they could become an obstacle to having Western sanctions lifted.

Others said to be on the chopping block are the leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Aung Thaung and Htay Oo, as well as Information Minister Kyaw San and Electric power Minister Zaw Min.

Of this group, Tin Aung Myint Oo is by far the most powerful. A high-ranking member of the former junta, he has a reputation as a battle-hardened officer and is considered to be one of the most corrupt of the ex-generals serving in the current administration.

Among those he is closely associated with are Tun Myint Naing and Zaw Zaw, two of Burma’s richest men.

The son of former drug warlord Lo Hsing-han, Tun Myint Naing (a.k.a. Steven Law) is the head of Asia World, a major conglomerate with close ties to powerful businessmen and officials in China. Zaw Zaw, who runs Max Myanmar, another top business concern in Burma, has been close to Tin Aung Myint Oo since the latter was the quartermaster-general under the previous regime.

Thein Sein and Tin Aung Myint Oo were both favorites of former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who selected them to run in the 2010 election as leaders of the army-created USDP. Than Shwe is also believed to have appointed them to their current positions.

However, there have been persistent reports since last year that the two are on bad terms. The clash may have as much to do with differences in their personalities as with any power struggle: Thein Sein is widely regarded as the least corrupt of Burma’s former military leaders, and he and his family have no known connections with any of the country’s tycoons.

Some suspect, however, that he doesn’t enjoy broad support within the government. His office is known to be displeased with several ministers’ performance and corruption scandals, but he himself has also been criticized for the sluggish pace of reforms by Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, another key member of the former regime.