Myanmar: Super cabinet to deflect criticism | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 05, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 05, 2012

Myanmar: Super cabinet to deflect criticism

After months of speculation and rumours, Myanmar's President Thein Sein has created a "super" cabinet in order to deflect attention from his besieged administration, which is riven with divisions and inertia. Recently, the president began to roll out his planned massive shake-up in government -- involving extensive cabinet changes and an overhaul of the civil service. This is aimed at reforming and modernising the country's antiquated government machinery and more importantly, boosting economic development.
President Thein Sein has tried to silence growing critics inside the country and shore up international support in one fell swoop -- the cabinet reshuffle announced earlier this week -- and get the reform process back on track. At least nine cabinet ministers have been replaced and more than sixteen new deputy ministers appointed in the largest shake-up in the Myanmar government since President Thein Sein took power last year and embarked on his ambitious reform process.
After months of hints and leaks from government advisors, Thein Sein has seized the moment and announced the cabinet changes, though only piecemeal. One thing is certain, the cabinet reshuffle is aimed at increasing the president's power, especially at time when there is a constitutional crisis between the president and the Parliament led by the Speaker of the lower house Shwe Mann.
The announcement was largely intended to deflect parliamentary criticism and interference, according to many analysts in Yangon. "The timing of the reshuffle was planned so as to divert attention from the crises the president is facing," Khin ZawWin told The Daily Star.
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.
In the 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. 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 re-organisation 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% a year and provide real income growth for everyone. Many Myanmarese economists, though, believe that the president's plans are over-ambitious and unrealistic, especially the proposed increase of per capita income to
$3,000 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. This will free him to concentrate on other matters, according to the president's 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 and making 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 creation of an elite team of ministers -- a super cabinet -- that will take responsibility for most of the government administration.
The current cabinet reshuffle show's the president's commitment to the reform process, according to many analysts. "The signs are very good that this new cabinet will help unblock the recent log-jam to reform and generally push for greater economic liberalisation," said Australian economic expert, Sean Turnell. Many of the new ministers and deputy minister 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. Many of the new ministers are academics, businessmen and technocrats. The appointment of Winston Set Aung -- a businessmen and economic consultant who has been acting as an economic advisor to the president during the last 12 months -- as the deputy minister for economic planning is only the start of things, said a government insider.
Competency, efficiency and effectiveness are now to be the watchwords for the government and the civil service many diplomats in Yangon believe. Promotion will be on results, borrowing from American organisational management text, said a European businessman who has travelled regularly and extensively in Myanmar. The president is a key fan of these texts that have been translated into Myanmarese, a close confidante of the president's confided to me.
"The battle between the hardliners and reformers has been exaggerated," a presidential advisor told The Daily Star, on condition of anonymity. "The fault line is between competence and incompetence; between effectiveness and ineffectiveness," he added.
A good illustration of this new approach to government is that Information Minister Kyaw Hsan has been effectively demoted to look after cooperatives, which many analysts believe will be phased out over time. The fact that he hung on for so long has been a mystery, but many believe his relationship with the old dictator Than Shwe made him almost indispensible, that is until the press council fiasco earlier this month made his departure almost inevitable.
The new information minister is the dynamic former Labour and Social Welfare Minister Aung Kyi. He has a reputation for being a reformer -- but more than anything, he is one of the most effective ministers in Thein Sein's cabinet. The ILO is full of praise for his farsighted approach to forced labour, the formation of trade unions and industrial conciliation, and child soldiers. Apart from that he has a good working relationship with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who he met several times when he was the liaison minister. Since then, they have continued to work together on the issue of Myanmarese migrant workers in Thailand.
Finally, former Railways Minister Aung Min is to become a minister in the president's office, commissioned with overseeing national reconciliation efforts. Apart from continuing his ceasefire mediation efforts with ethnic rebel groups, he will be responsible for encouraging Myanmarese 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.
"The government must deliver on its promises," another insider said, "and time is running out."
In particular, the constitutional crisis that is presently pitting the president against the parliament, and Thein Sein against the speaker Shwe Mann, has yet to be resolved, and may well add to the paralysis in government. No one can afford this to be spun out any longer than is possible -- a compromise must be found or the country is going to plunge into increasing uncertainty and disorder, with government effectively castrated.

The writer is a former Current Affairs Editor, Asia, BBC World Service.

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