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Saturday, March 8, 2014
- After months of speculation and rumours, President Thein Sein of Myanmar (earlier Burma) has created a “super” cabinet to try to salvage his besieged administration – riven with divisions and inertia. Currently he is embroiled in a constitutional crisis – a battle for power between the president and the parliament – that threatens to paralyse the government until it is resolved. This has left the president increasingly isolated, with only the army offering concrete support.
“The reform process has been stalled for months by an apparent struggle between hardliners opposed to reform and liberals who supported it,” Sean Turnell, an academic at Macquarie University in Australia told IPS. “There seems to have been a backlash against reform, especially of the economic variety, and it seemed to be gaining momentum in recent months.”
Earlier this week the president began to roll out his long planned massive shake-up in government – involving extensive cabinet changes and a significant overhaul of the civil service. This is aimed at reforming and modernising the country’s antiquated government machinery and, more importantly, to boost economic development.
President Thein Sein deliberately adopted a strategy of increasing his control on the reigns of power in order to stifle the growing criticism inside the country and shore up international support.
“The timing of the reshuffle was planned so as to divert attention from the crises the president is facing,” Myanmar activist and commentator Khin Zaw Win told IPS.
Certainly last week the violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the country’s western Arakan state was the talk of the town; this week it’s the cabinet changes. “Now the right men are in the right positions,” said Aung Tun, a street stall vendor in downtown Yangon (earlier Rangoon).
The cabinet reshuffle announced earlier this week is a work in progress intended also to get the reform process back on track. More than a dozen cabinet ministers have been replaced or sacked so far, with more to come; and more than 20 new deputy ministers have been appointed in the largest shake-up in the Burmese government since Thein Sein took power last year and embarked on his ambitious reform process.
Most of the new junior ministers are former academics, businessmen and bureaucrats, like the new deputy minister for economic planning Winston Set Aung – a businessmen and economic consultant, who has been acting as an economic advisor to the president over the last 12 months. At least half of the new deputy ministers are former civil servants, according to diplomats in Yangon who closely follow these matters. In the past serving military officers of former military men would have been co-opted.
In this week’s sweeping shake-up, Thein Sein replaced the ministers responsible for information, economic planning, finance, industry and railways. These ministries are being transferred to the president’s office. The finance minister Hla Tun, economic planning minister Tin Naing Thein, industry minister Soe Thein and railways minister Aung Min have all effectively been promoted and transferred to the president’s office to oversee the running of the economy. “It’s more a reorganisation than a reshuffle,” said a government insider.
Earlier this month President Thein announced that the government’s immediate priority was to boost economic growth by 8 percent a year and provide real income growth for everyone. Many Myanmar economists believe the president’s plans are overambitious and unrealistic, especially the proposed increase of per capita income to 3,000 dollars by 2015.
The economic ministers, on whose shoulders this Herculean task now rests, will oversee the process from the president’s office. This means they will work directly under the president, which will free him up to concentrate on other matters, according to his political advisors. It will increase their direct access to the president and give them greater authority.
“It’s all part of streamlining the decision-making process to make the president and his ministers more effective,” said a government insider. But it is also a process of centralising power in the president’s office – with the creation of an elite team of ministers – a super cabinet – that will take responsibility for most of the government administration.
The current cabinet reshuffle shows the president’s commitment to the reform, according to many analysts. “The signs are very good that this new Cabinet will help unblock the recent log-jam in the reform process and generally push for greater economic liberalisation,” said the Australian economic expert, Sean Turnell. “Many of the new ministers and deputy ministers are very committed economic reformers.
But Thein Sein’s other aim is to improve the efficiency of the government bureaucracy and inject new blood into the administration. Competency, efficiency and effectiveness are now to be the watchwords for the government and the civil service, many diplomats in Rangoon believe.
“The battle between the hardliners and reformers has been exaggerated,” a presidential advisor told IPS on condition of anonymity. “The faultline is between competence and incompetence; between effectiveness and ineffectiveness.”
Thein Sein’s latest initiative was prompted by the recent appointment of a new vice-president – the former naval commander Nyan Tun. Curiously he is something of a Thein Sein clone: softly spoken, fiercely loyal and very cautious. But he will also steadfastly uphold the interest of the military, according to sources close to him.
Nyan Tun’s appointment is essentially the army’s way of supporting the beleaguered president. They are committed to Thein Sein and his reform agenda, according to informed sources inside the military. The army chief vice senior general Min Aung Hlaing in particular has emerged as a staunch supporter of Thein Sein. He wants the democratic experiment to work.