Thu 5 Jul 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma
Myanmar President Thein Sein told parliament Wednesday that the country’s first vice president has resigned, a move analysts say could begin a broader reshuffle that may appoint more reformers to Myanmar’s cabinet.
The president’s announcement helped clear up weeks of speculation about the fate of Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, who is widely regarded as a hard-liner wary of picking up the speed of change. Mr. Thein Sein said the vice president resigned for health reasons.
A high-ranking member of Myanmar’s previous military junta, Mr. Tin Aung Myint Oo became vice president last year after being selected by a bloc of military officers in the country’s legislature.
His resignation—along with a cabinet reshuffle expected during the parliament session that began Wednesday—might strengthen the hand of Mr. Thein Sein as he attempts to accelerate the pace of economic change in Myanmar after the European Union and the U.S. began suspending their longstanding economic sanctions against the country during the past several months.
Mr. Thein Sein, himself a former army general, pledged last month to expand the country’s economy more quickly and meet rising expectations for change, laying out plans for partial privatizations and a long-awaited foreign investment law designed to spur overseas companies to invest more money into Myanmar’s long-isolated economy.
But investors have worried that some of those priorities could bog down amid continuing opposition from former members of the military regime who fear losing perks in an economy that is still largely dominated by the military and state-connected companies.
The foreign investment law, which is expected to formalize rules on taxation and legal rights for overseas companies, appeared close to final approval earlier this year, but then was delayed for reasons that investors say still aren’t fully clear.
“Mr. Thein Sein needs support if he wants to get his additional reform measures passed through parliament quickly, and the legislative agenda already looks very busy. There is a lot to do,” said Jan Zalewski, an analyst with IHS Global Insight.
Myanmar has already implemented a number of unexpected overhauls during the past year, which analysts believe were motivated by a desire to coax Western powers into lifting economic sanctions and attract investment from the West after years of heavy reliance on funding from China.
Myanmar leaders have said they simply want to turn the page on years of harsh military rule and help the country catch up with its neighbors. They are loosening curbs on the Internet, releasing political prisoners and modernizing the economy with those goals in mind.
It is unclear how soon Mr. Tin Aung Myint Oo’s successor will be appointed, or how quickly his resignation—which had been expected for weeks after he disappeared from public view—will be followed by a cabinet reshuffle. Ye Htut, a spokesman for Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, declined to comment on speculation that a reshuffle is imminent.
Analysts predict that three or four ministers in the 37-member cabinet could be replaced as Mr. Thein Sein attempts to strengthen his control over the government of Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
Under Myanmar’s constitution, parliament has until July 10 to select a new vice president. Some analysts believe that officials have been working to settle on a replacement, causing the long delay in confirming the vice president’s departure after speculation about his health began circulating in May.
It may also be possible that officials are still horse-trading over who to appoint, with hard-liners still resisting change, other analysts say.
Myanmar has a second vice president, a separate post held by an ethnic Shan doctor, but he isn’t believed to wield significant power.
The post of first vice president is potentially critical, however, with Mr. Thein Sein, who is 67 years old, believed to be suffering from heart disease. Myanmar’s next national election is three years away.
Some Myanmar experts have pointed to Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, who is seen as a reformer, as a possible candidate. Others have singled out election commission chairman Tin Aye, a retired lieutenant-general who is considered a moderate, as another vice presidential candidate.
Regardless of who succeeds Mr. Tin Aung Myint Oo, the next vice president will likely require the support of the armed forces. Under Myanmar’s constitution, a quarter of the seats in the country’s parliament are reserved for soldiers.
Mr. Thein Sein “will definitely have to confer with the military, and there is some disagreement of the speed of reform,” analyst Mr. Zalewski said. “It depends on how much rapport there is between the two sides,” though it’s possible the military isn’t fully against the reform process as it stands at the moment, he added.