Will Reshuffle Embolden Thein Sein’s Reform Agenda?

By Reform, The Irrawaddy 28 August 2012

President Thein Sein has just announced a long-awaited reshuffle of ministers in his cabinet. As many anticipated those in charge of the ministries of information, industry and national planning and economic development were moved.

Thein Sein shifted four ministers—Aung Min, Soe Thein, Tin Naing Thein and Hla Tun—to positions attached to the President’s Office. This will no doubt strengthen his reform agenda, many analysts in Rangoon and Naypyidaw have speculated.

Outgoing Railways Minister Aung Min and outgoing Industry Minister Soe Thein are known to be firm backers of the president and he will want to keep them close. They both considered “reform-minded ministers” who previously served in the armed forces before joining the quasi-civilian government.

Aung Min has been leading peace missions to ethnic regions. With his new post attached to the President’s Office, he will be given more power to handle ethnic affairs and peace building programs. They both have been seen meeting and mingling with dissidents and ethnic insurgency groups.

This reshuffle is the biggest governmental shake-up since Thein Sein came into power. The move also comes after the appointment of new Vice-President Nyan Htun who previously served as navy chief.

In May, Tin Aung Myint Oo, the former vice-president who was known to be a hardliner, abruptly resigned citing health reasons. It took several months to select a replacement and many expected the reshuffle would come soon after this key matter was finally resolved.

Thein Sein changed nine of his 29 cabinet posts. Information and Culture Minister Kyaw Hsan has been removed and will now run the Cooperatives Ministry. Observers believe this ministry will eventually be abolished.

Known to be Burma’s “Comical Ali” in reference to the Iraqi propaganda chief during the 2003 US-led invasion, Kyaw Hsan was known as a hardliner in the government. Moreover, Naypyidaw insiders believe that several ministers were implicated in large-scale corruption scandals—siphoning and abusing state funds for government projects—and Thein Sein had been informed about several cases. It is still unknown whether any action will be taken against those allegedly involved.

Aung Kyi, outgoing Minister of Labor and Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, will become the new head of the Information Ministry. He once served as a liaison between the government and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It is still unknown how Burma’s new censorship policy will be implemented under his leadership as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division remains operational.

Strong speculation about a possible government reshuffle has circulated for several months. Fearing being removed, some ministers actively practiced magical voodoo or yadaya rites in order to bring good fortune or delay the changes.

Many critics think that reform in Burma has been unnecessarily slow in recent months with little progress as implementation at ministry levels has not been coming forward. Several ministers were known to have resisted the reform process and it seems Thein Sein made up his mind to remove them and instead promote several figures who were closer to him.

Thein Sein repeatedly warned in his recent speeches that he would leave behind “conservatives” who are against reform.

The government also appointed 15 new deputy ministers—some of which are civilian scholars and technocratsin respected fields. In the past, the regime usually appointed ex-army officers to serve in civilian posts and ministries.

This cabinet reshuffle has been long anticipated and has received many plaudits from ordinary Burmese people and political observers. Thein Sein has no doubt strengthened his position but we must wait to see if the pace of reform maintains momentum as a consequence.