The Start of a Second Wave of Reform, or a Sign of Trouble?

By Reform, Saw Yan Naing 29 August 2012

A series of major changes in the lineup of President Thein Sein’s cabinet this week have been greeted with mixed reactions, as some observers welcome the moves as a boost to reforms, while others see only evidence of continuing disarray.

A total of nine ministers have been reshuffled since Monday, including a number of close allies of the president and some who are seen as hardliners opposed to his reform agenda. In addition, the head of the office of the Auditor General and at least one deputy minister have been reassigned.

Among the most important changes are the removal of Information Minister Kyaw Hsan—widely seen as an opponent of reforms—and the posting of the outgoing railways and industry ministers to the president’s office.

Kyaw Hsan, who was named the new minister of cooperatives, will be replaced by Aung Kyi, who previously acted as a liaison between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s former ruling junta.

“I think this is a hint that President Thein Sein will accelerate his ‘second wave of reform’ without delay,” said Aung Naing Oo, the deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thailand-based think tank.

“In a transition, it is no surprise to see those who are conservatives or opposed to reforms being left behind,” he added, echoing Thein Sein’s remark in mid-May that “conservatives who do not have a reformist mindset will be left behind.”

Others also welcomed the appointment of Aung Kyi as the new information minister, expressing hope that it would help speed up media reforms.

“U Aung Kyi is a moderate person who mediated with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We think his policy on the media will be softer than that of U Kyaw Hsan,” said May Thingyan Hein, the chief editor of Shwe Myit Makha, a Rangoon-based online news agency.

May Thingyan Hein said she was also pleased to see Aung Min, the former railways minister, moved to the president’s office, where he will continue to work closely with Thein Sein on efforts to negotiate an end to decades of conflict with ethnic armed groups.

“It is reasonable for him to be in the president’s office if he is dealing with the ethnic issue,” she said.

While outgoing Industry Minister Soe Thein, another Thein Sein ally, will also be joining the president’s office, Construction Minister Khin Maung Myint and Minister for Electric Power-1 Zaw Min have not been given new posts.

While both Khin Maung Myint and Zaw Min are regarded as hardliners, Zaw Min is a particularly controversial figure. Last year he spoke out strongly in favor of proceeding with the Myitsone hydro-power project in Kachin State, until Thein Sein ordered the suspension of the deeply unpopular project last September.

Zaw Min has also been accused of playing a key role in the May 1998 mass killing of 81 Burmese civilians, including women and children, on Christie Island, off the far southern coast of Burma.

By shoring up his support within his cabinet and shedding some of those who have opposed him, Thein Sein is moving to create a “super cabinet,” according to veteran journalist Larry Jagan.

But even as Thein Sein moves to strengthen his position internally, the timing of the reshuffle suggests that it is also a sign of weakness, said Jagan.

“He is doing this to deflect attention from the problems he’s facing,” said Jagan, noting that the government has come under fire for its handling of the recent violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State and other issues.

Naw Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the Karen National Union, agreed that the government appears to be struggling with a host of problems. Besides the clashes in Arakan State, fighting continues between the armed forces and Kachin rebels.

James Lum Dau, the deputy chief of foreign affairs for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), said he was not optimistic that the government reshuffle would do anything to end the conflict.

“Their strategy is just to eliminate the ethnic groups one by one. They are feeding some ethnic groups carrots while hitting others with sticks,” he said.

According to sources in Kachin State, a major offensive has been launched this week against the KIO’s headquarters of Laiza and the jade-mining area of Hpakant, another KIO stronghold, forcing thousands  of civilians to flee.