Mon 27 Aug 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Myanmar’s government announced a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle Monday, as President Thein Sein seeks to strengthen his hand in pursuing more economic and social reforms.
Nine of the cabinet’s ministers were reassigned to new positions, according to a statement posted on the president’s website, marking the biggest government shake-up since a nominally-civilian administration took power in Myanmar last year. The reassigned ministers included Kyaw Hsan, previously the country’s information and culture minister, who was widely regarded as a hardliner who resisted expanding freedoms for the country’s closely-monitored press. He will now move to a less important ministry known as the Ministry of Co-operatives.
It wasn’t immediately possible to reach Mr. Kyaw Hsan, who will be succeeded by Aung Kyi, a senior official who in years past served as a government negotiator with then-dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and whom residents described as sympathetic with President Thein Sein’s reform process.
The announcement also said that several important ministers would now be attached to the president’s office. They included Aung Min, a former railway minister who has played a lead role in President Thein Sein’s efforts to negotiate peace agreements with armed ethnic minority groups in the country. They also included Soe Thein, a former industry minister who is also seen as a supporter of more economic change.
It wasn’t immediately clear who would be appointed to be the new railway minister, while the new industry minister will be Aye Myint, formerly a science and technology minister.
It’s “good that good people are being given important positions,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based political analyst who follows Myanmar. “The fact that the president has appointed four people to his office—reform-minded people—is a good sign that he is reinforcing his second wave of reform.”
Investors and analysts have been anticipating a major cabinet shuffle for months amid intensifying rumors of a split between reformers and conservatives in Myanmar’s new government, which assumed power after a decades-old military junta stepped down last year. Since then, Mr. Thein Sein—himself a former military officer—has led a sweeping reform program that has included releasing hundreds of political prisoners, loosening restrictions on the Internet, and floating the country’s currency to help modernize the economy. Ms. Suu Kyi, meanwhile, was elected to a parliamentary post earlier this year after years of house arrest.
U.S. and European officials have responded by easing many of the tough economic sanctions they put in place in recent years to punish Myanmar’s military for alleged human-rights violations. But U.S. leaders still maintain some restrictions, including a ban on imports from the country.
The new U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, recently said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the country’s reform process remains “fragile,” and some residents and investors have worried that more conservative elements within the government could reassert themselves and slow the pace of change. The latest reshuffle could make that less likely, at least in the short term.
The most immediate impact of the reshuffle could be to clear the way for more press freedoms, though many journalists have been skeptical of some of the most recent reforms.
The Ministry of Information last week announced that Myanmar was ending the longstanding practice of prepublication censorship, but journalists could still face sanctions after publication if they anger the authorities. Government restrictions circulated among journalists recently include admonitions that warn journalists against publishing anything deemed “negatively” critical of the state or its policies.
Maung Wuntha, a veteran journalist and head of the Myanmar Journalists Association, said Monday’s reshuffle “is something like placing the right man in the right place.”
“Kyaw Hsan was increasingly unpopular among the media people. So he was moved to another, silent place,” he said.
—Celine Fernandez contributed to this article.