Is a Cabinet Reshuffle Coming Soon to Burma?

By The Irrawaddy 2 July 2012

Since early this year there has been persistent speculation that President Thein Sein is contemplating a cabinet reshuffle that would reduce the power of ministers opposed to ongoing reforms—a move that would speed up the ongoing transition process.

For now, however, the country remains in limbo. Many ordinary Burmese feel that the pace of change has been too slow and unpredictable, and this has raised doubts about whether the country is really moving forward at all. Many observers who say that the old system is still alive and well point to the continuing presence of several powerful ministers whose commitment to reforms is dubious at best.

At the top of the list of those who are likely to be part of a reshuffle, say veteran Burma watchers in Rangoon, are Kyaw Hsan, who heads the ministries of information and culture, and Zaw Min, the minister of electric power 1.

Also believed to be facing the chopping block are Khin Maung Myint, the minister for construction, and Myint Hlaing, the minister for agriculture.

There are expectations that Aung Kyi, who currently serves as labor minister, will take over as minister of information when and if Kyaw Hsan does get pushed out the job he has held for nearly 10 years. The former junta stalwart will, however, likely retain his post as head of the Ministry of Culture.

The big question, however, is who will replace Tin Aung Myint Oo as vice-president. Although there has been no official notice of his resignation—and local media have been warned not to report it—sources in Naypyidaw have confirmed that the notoriously corrupt hardliner did indeed step down in May.

So far, the President’s Office has only tacitly acknowledged Tin Aung Myint Oo’s resignation by posting a photo on its website of Thein Sein presiding over a cabinet meeting in May with just one of his vice-presidents—Sai Mauk Kham—beside him at the table.

Tin Aung Myint Oo, who has reportedly been suffering from throat cancer, became vice-president after he was nominated for the post by armed forces appointees in Burma’s Parliament. This followed his election in November 2010 as a candidate for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. Whoever takes his place must also be nominated by the military.

Widely regarded as one of the most corrupt figures in Burma, Tin Aung Myint Oo is also known for his hardline stance toward Kachin insurgents. He and the president reportedly clashed at a cabinet meeting when Thein Sein insisted on ending the army offensive in northern Burma. His resignation, while a blow to the government that came to power in 2010 through a rigged election, could make it easier for Thein Sein to pursue his agenda unimpeded.

It remains unclear, however, how far Thein Sein is prepared to go if the path before him is cleared of obstacles. In May, he told a meeting in Naypyidaw that “conservatives who do not have a reformist mindset will be left behind.” Two months later, however, not much has changed, and he still surrounds himself with hardliners, including some accused of crimes against humanity.

A reliable source in Naypyidaw informed The Irrawaddy that some ministers who were young army officers in 1988 were involved in mass killings when the country was rocked by a democracy uprising. “These butchers remain in the cabinet and they are still alive and kicking, and very powerful,” said a source familiar with some cabinet ministers who are currently in the government.

The question now is: Will Thein Sein make a move against conservatives and anti-reformists?

Several political analysts say that Thein Sein has been indecisive and slow move against cabinet members who oppose his reforms. In fact, they say, cabinet ministers rarely speak to each other and government policy is uncoordinated. In addition, the center of power has disappeared and it is unclear who is calling the shots.

So far, Thein Sein has done little more than deliver reformist speeches that seem designed to lure Western governments, replete with calls for transparency, accountability and promises to tackle corruption. But implementation has been slow, and the outcome has not been felt by the public.

“The slow road to reform can only undermine the president and can only undo what he has achieved so far,” said an adviser to the president who requested anonymity.

Several ministers who don’t want to move forward and have no faith in reform have undermined the president and the reform process, he added. Many ministers have a vested interest in lucrative projects and seem intent on protecting their turf. But in the absence of sufficient evidence of large-scale corruption, the president has hesitated to take action against them.

But this inaction may soon come to an end if, as the president’s office has hinted, a major reshuffle comes sometime later this month.

If it does happen, it will come none too soon. As many businessmen and political observers close to the government have said, if Thein Sein doesn’t make some tough decisions now, his entire reform process will be doomed to failure.