BANGKOK - A shake-up of Myanmar's
quasi-civilian government is in the pipeline, one
that could highlight underlying tensions between
reformists and hardliners in President Thein
Sein's delicately balanced administration.
Extensive cabinet changes and an overhaul of the
civil service are supposedly imminent, as the
president seeks to reform and modernize the
country's outdated government machinery.
"Everyone in Naypyidaw is on
tender-hooks," said a recent foreign visitor to
the secluded new capital city. "Most ministers are
nervous, not knowing if
they'll still be in their offices in a month's
time." The bureaucrats are just as anxious, he
added. "No one knows when the guillotine will
fall, and on whom."
The resignation of
hardliner vice president Tin Aung Myint Oo three
months ago signaled the beginning of the shake-up.
The chances of an early odds-on favorite to
replace him, the current mayor of Yangon and
former intelligence chief Myint Swe, are now in
doubt. Soon after his nomination was announced in
early July, it was withdrawn because of
citizenship queries about the nationality of his
daughter, who is married to an Australian and is a
resident in her husband's country.
"Citizenship is critical, especially since
the recent problems in Arakan [Rakhine State]
erupted; no government can take it lightly," said
Aung Naing Oo, an independent analyst with the
Vahu Development Institute, referring to clashes
between Buddhist and Muslim residents, with the
latter considered by many in Myanmar not to belong
to the country. The citizenship issue could affect
as many as two million people inside Myanmar who
are stateless or have foreign resident
certificates, he added.
That was over a
month ago and the constitutional committee
investigating the Rakhine State disturbances,
which forced many to flee to neighboring
Bangladesh, has yet to announce its findings.
In the meantime, several alternative
candidates have been mooted, though none as yet
have been nominated.
indicates a struggle within the triumvirate -
between President Thein Sein, the lower house
Speaker Shwe Mann and the army chief Min Aung
Hlaing - over the succession," said a Myanmar
analyst with close contacts to the regime.
For most analysts and diplomats, the
decision whether to rule out Myint Swe as vice
president is more likely to hinge on the
implications it would have for general elections
in 2015 and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's
potential candidacy for the presidency.
"If they decide that Myint Swe is
ineligible because of his daughter's Australian
citizenship, then it is a clear precedent that
Aung San Suu Kyi would also be ineligible next
time round," said a Yangon-based Western diplomat,
referring to Suu Kyi's marriage to a now-deceased
British national. "If he's accepted, it is then a
clear signal that she also would be considered as
a presidential candidate in the future."
The episode has highlighted confusion over
the 2008 constitution and the muddled political
process that former military dictator Senior
General Than Shwe has left as his legacy. Tin Aung
Myint Oo tendered his resignation to Thein Sein on
medical grounds in May.
constitution, the president must inform the
parliament within seven days, or, as the
parliament was in recess, recall it within 21 days
to make the announcement and start the process of
electing a new vice president.
for unknown reasons, chose neither of these
options and instead opted to give the vice
president sick leave. This was later extended to
two months retrospectively, coincidentally ending
on July 3, the eve of parliament reconvening. The
latest shenanigans began as soon as the parliament
was officially in session.
While the first
vice president's position is highly symbolic, it
does entail a seat on the powerful national
security council and he would take over as interim
president if anything should happen to the
president. Controversy swirled around Tin Aung
Myint Oo, former head of the powerful trade
council in the outgoing millitary junta, ever
since his original nomination last year.
Rearguard representative Tin
Aung Myint Oo was Than Shwe's personal selection
for the post, though he was not the military's
most popular choice. In one of his last public
appearances, Than Shwe visited the new parliament
to urge appointed parliamentarian soldiers - who
make up 25% of parliament - to nominate him after
they had initially refused.
Upon taking up
the post, Tin Aung Myint Oo reportedly set his
sights on becoming the next president in 2015. His
executive hopes were known to upset Speaker Shwe
Mann, who saw bringing him down as a key
prerequisite for his own presidential ambitions, a
key advisor to the former general told Asia Times
Tin Aung Myint Oo was widely
viewed as the hardline counterbalance to Thein
Sein's reform plans. He was especially active in
government decisions impacting on business and the
economy, earning him the nick-name "Octopus" for
his wide-ranging reach in commercial affairs.
He was also regarded as one of the less
scrupulous members of the previous regime - the
State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - in
his role as a go-between for the then government
and Chinese businessmen. He was widely viewed as
Than Shwe's personal bag-man.
Myint Oo's strong relationship with Beijing and
Chinese business interests contributed to his
downfall, according to insider sources. Those ties
generated suspicion and mistrust at a time Thein
Sein's government was trying to diversify the
country's diplomacy away from its past
over-reliance on China.
After Tin Aung
Myint Oo sent his letter of resignation to Thein
Sein, he reportedly took refuge in a Buddhist
monastery, where he stayed until his resignation
was accepted. He actually flitted between three
different monasteries, according to a military
source close to him.
"He's in hiding,"
said the former aide. He had to move from one
monastery to another because he could not legally
ordain as a monk and maintain his political
position, he added.
Thein Sein must fill
his position before he can proceed with his
planned ministerial and government shake-up, say
government insiders. As Tin Aung Myint Oo was
originally nominated by military members of
parliament, his successor must also be approved by
them. This is where the first-line political
battle is taking place.
chief Min Aung Hlaing is not directly beholden to
his former commander-in-chief Than Shwe, he is
anxious not to upset the old man, said a former
military man who has contacts with the current
military leaders. Myint Swe, like Tin Aung Myint
Oo, was known to be close to Than Shwe. However
finding another former military man with the same
credentials is proving difficult, say the
The citizenship issue apart,
Myint Swe was viewed by many as an ideal
compromise candidate - suitable to the military
and with a newly proven pro-business acumen since
becoming Yangon's mayor. He could be expected to
support Thein Sein's reform agenda and at the same
time uphold the military's concerns, according to
Myanmar businessmen who are close to him.
Against this transitional backdrop,
government insiders say Thein Sein plans massive
reform and restructuring of government, a
so-called "renewal" that will aims to make
government more modern, efficient and transparent.
Rumors suggest some ministries could be merged
while other efforts will be made to streamline the
bloated and corrupt bureaucracy.
ministries are barely functioning while others are
more than full-speed ahead," said a source close
to the government. "This is the key pre-occupation
- finding competent ministers and bureaucrats that
can deliver rather than searching for reformers
and liberals to head the reform process."
The risks to Thein Sein's ambitious reform
program are two-fold: solving ethnic issues that
have plagued the country for decades and boosting
the beleaguered economy. Two of the president's
favorites, Railways Minister Aung Min and Industry
Minister Soe Thein, are expected to play more
critical roles in the new administration that
emerges after the reshuffle.
Aung Min is
tipped to become a minister in the president's
office commissioned with overseeing national
reconciliation efforts. Apart form continuing his
ceasefire mediation efforts with ethnic rebel
groups, he will be responsible for encouraging
Myanmar exiles and expatriates to return to the
country. He will also reportedly become a member
of the national defense security council and be
given a measure of authority over the military.
Soe Thein is expected to take on the
finance ministry or a merged industry and planning
portfolio. He will reportedly play a big role in
the government's ramped up efforts to improve the
economy and reduce poverty, according to a senior
source in government. Another key area will be
reform of the central bank, which sources in the
business community say will see a doubling of its
None of these proposed changes can
proceed until the vice presidential vacancy is
filled. The eventual appointee will be expected to
protect military interests, including gathering
momentum to amend the constitution in a way that
reduces the military's role. Suu Kyi and her
National League for Democracy (NLD) Party have set
this as one of their three top priorities before
the next elections are held in 2015.
a reform drive that threatens to upset Thein
Sein's delicate balancing act, and one that the
new appointed vice president will be expected to
challenge and subvert.
previously covered Myanmar politics for the
British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently
a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.
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