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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 30, 2012

Thein Sein shuffles to restart reform
By Larry Jagan

YANGON and BANGKOK - A cabinet reshuffle in Myanmar aims to put President Thein Sein's increasingly stalled reform process back on track. The highly anticipated shake-up, announced on Monday, will empower reformers at the expense of hardliners and could provide new impetus behind the president's stated policy priorities of national reconciliation and economic development.

Nine cabinet ministers were replaced and 16 new deputy ministers appointed in the biggest personnel overhaul of government since Thein Sein assumed power last year and embarked on his ambitious and widely lauded political and economic reform program. Those reforms have included the release of hundreds of political prisoners, a loosening of press


censorship and allowances for pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to win a seat in parliament.

The cabinet reshuffle replaced the ministers responsible for information, economic planning, development, finance, industry and railways, all significant and powerful positions. These ministries' authority will be transferred directly to the president's office as part of the reshuffle. Thein Sein earlier this month appointed Admiral Nyan Tun as one of two vice presidents, considered a largely ceremonial post, replacing Tin Aung Myint Oo, who retired reportedly due to ill health.

Finance Minister Hla Tun, Economic Planning Minister Tin Naing Thein, Industry Minister Soe Thein and Railways Minister Aung Min were all effectively promoted and transferred to the president's office to oversee broadly the running of the economy.

For months Thein Sein and his top advisers had promised a major shake-up in government involving extensive changes to his cabinet and the civil service. These changes have been touted as essential next steps on the road to political and economic reform and modernization of the country's antiquated government machinery. Whether they will be enough to overcome mounting rearguard resistance and surging popular demands, however, is still a wild card.

"The reform process has been stalled for months by an apparent struggle between hardliners opposed to reform and liberals who supported it," said Sean Turnell, an academic at Macquarie University in Australia. "There seems to have been a backlash against reform, especially of the economic variety, and it seemed to be gaining momentum in recent months."

Thein Sein suddenly finds himself besieged from all sides, with parliament, the political opposition and many ethnic groups snapping at his heels. At the same time, a loosening of past restrictions is slowly sinking the country into social chaos, seen in rising strikes, protests and religious violence in western Rakhine State. Now only the international community seems to steadfastly support his administration and agenda.

"There is a medley, even melee, of voices, players and interests raised against the President," said academic and social commentator Khin Zaw Win. "On top of that, the government is beset by a slew of crises, some unfortunate and of long-standing, while others are of its own making."

To counter the cacophony against him, Thein Sein continues to trumpet his mantra of national reconciliation and economic development. Neither of those two policy priorities, however, are steaming ahead due to conflicts in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states and resistance to a proposed foreign investment law designed to lure in outside capital.

In a bid to build a consensus around these two crucial points, Thein Sein recently appointed a group of mostly new advisers to the newly created National Socio-Economic Advisory Council. This month, he announced the government's immediate priority was to boost economic growth by 8% per year and provide real income growth for everyone. Many economists believe those plans are overly ambitious and unrealistic, especially the proposed increase of per capita income to US$3,000 by 2015.

Economic emphasis
Though he has said he will not stand for re-election when his term expires, Thein Sein understands that his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party's (USDP) chances of competing against the popular Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party at the 2015 elections depends on his government's ability to create jobs and raise grass roots' incomes.

His economic ministers, on whose shoulders this herculean task now rests, will with the recent reshuffle oversee the process from the president's office. This means they will work directly under and have privileged access to Thein Sein, a reconfiguration that will free him up to concentrate on other matters, including issues of national reconciliation, according to his political advisors.

"It's all part of stream-lining the decision-making process and making the president and his ministers more effective," said a government insider.

Foreign experts believe the cabinet reshuffle underscores Thein Sein's commitment to liberalizing economic reforms. "The signs are very good that this new cabinet will help unblock the recent log-jam to reform and generally push for greater economic liberalization," said Turnell, the Myanmar economy expert. "Many of the new ministers and deputy ministers are very committed economic reformers."

It's less clear if the reshuffle will spark change the government's hidebound bureaucracy. In a bid to inject new blood and culture into the administration, many of the new ministers are former academics, businessmen and technocrats rather than soldiers.

The appointment of Winston Set Aung - a businessmen and economic consultant who has served as an economic adviser to the president in the past 12 months - as the deputy minister for economic planning has been viewed as a move in a more technocratic direction. Competence, efficiency and effectiveness, say diplomats in Yangon, are being touted as the new watch words for the government and civil service.

"The battle between hardliners and reformers has been exaggerated," a presidential adviser said on condition of anonymity. "The fault line is between competence and incompetence, between effectiveness and ineffectiveness," he said.

Analysts say one illustration of this new approach was seen in the demotion of hard-line information minister Kyaw Hsan, who was shunted to head the less-powerful cooperatives portfolio. Kyaw Hsan often contradicted Thein Sein's reform messages on media management and was widely viewed as a proxy of former dictator Senior General Than Shwe.

He was replaced by Aung Kyi, formerly labor and social welfare minister, who is widely viewed as a dynamic and effective reformer. His position on media liberalization will be closely watched. The International Labor Organization, for one, has praised his approach to forced labor, the formation of trade unions, and child soldiers. He has also worked closely with opposition leader Suu Kyi on the issue of millions of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand.

Former railways minister Aung Min, meanwhile, was tapped to become a minister in the president's office dedicated to national reconciliation efforts. While continuing his ceasefire mediation attempts with ethnic rebel groups, he will also be responsible for encouraging Myanmar exiles and expatriates to return to the country to assist in its development. Many who were previously blacklisted, including top exile media editors and former anti-government activists, have recently returned.

Just as significant, Aung Min will become a member of the powerful national defense security council and be given a measure of quasi-civilian authority over the military. While top military members are known to support reforms that buoy the economy and their personal economic interests, they are more suspect of Thein Sein's political reform agenda, including engagement with insurgent and dissident groups.

While all these moves will consolidate Thein Sein's power, some analysts believe they are also an effort to deflect parliamentary criticism and interference. "The timing of the reshuffle was planned so as to divert attention from the crises the president is facing," the commentator Khin Zaw Win said.

A constitutional crisis presently pitting the president against parliament, and a budding rivalry between Thein Sein against the parliament Speaker, Shwe Mann, both threaten to stall the reform process. And as more political and economic actors make demands of government, it will become more difficult to strike compromises on pressing issues. "The government must deliver on its reform promises and time is running out," a government insider said.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

New reform balance in Myanmar (Aug 17, '12)

What Thein Sein promised Suu Kyi (Sep 30, '11)

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