Veil of Secrecy Must be Lifted

Despite a cabinet reshuffle in Burma aimed at better government, a lack of transparency persists.
A commentary by Larry Jagan
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Thein Sein speaks to reporters in Tokyo, April 23, 2012.
Thein Sein speaks to reporters in Tokyo, April 23, 2012.

At long last, details of the cabinet changes in Burma that have long been in the pipeline have begun to trickle out officially.

The fact that the planned shakeup is being announced piecemeal, and first on President Thein Sein's website, seems to suggest that things behind the scenes in Naypyidaw are far from resolved—and not just the constitutional crisis between the president and the parliament. 

Even after six months of hints, the president seems incapable of decisive action, though what is emerging seems to be a step in the right direction and should help the reform process move forward.

Advisers to the president have constantly alluded to the fact that the bitter struggle in government between the liberals and the hardliners has continuously stalled the planned overhaul of government.

So is this announcement of the initial planned cabinet changes a clear sign that Thein Sein and the reformers now have the upper hand, at least for the moment?  Another consideration seems to have taken hold in Thein Sein’s strategy—he wants to revitalize the cabinet and the civil service.

The stress now is on the ministers and their staff delivering substantial changes that will improve the conditions of the people in the country—“the democracy dividend” as I’ve repeatedly dubbed it.


A good illustration of this is that Information Minister Kyaw Hsan has been effectively demoted to look after cooperatives, which many analysts believe will be phased out over time.

Why he hung on so long has been a mystery, but many believe his relationship with the old dictator Than Shwe made him indispensable—that is, until the press council fiasco earlier this month made his departure almost inevitable.

In his place is the dynamic 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 far-sighted approach to forced labour, organized labour, and child soldiers. And apart from that he has a good working relationship with opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom he met several times when he was the liaison minister.

Since then they have continued to work together on the issue of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand.

Economic development

Most critically, Thein Sein has replaced the ministers responsible for economic development, finance, and economic planning. These will be transferred to the office of the president.

Not all the personnel changes have been announced, but these will be forthcoming in the near future, according to government insiders.

Finance Minister Hla Tun, Economic Planning Minister Tin Naing Thein, Industry Minister Soe Thein, and Railways Minister Aung Min are to be replaced, though their successors have yet to be announced.

These ministers have been effectively promoted, though, and have been brought into the president’s office to oversee the running of the economy.

Former Industry Minister Soe Thein is expected to head the president’s economic team, a move which has been warmly welcomed by Western diplomats and businessmen.

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, which will free him to concentrate on other matters, according to the president’s political advisers.

It’s all part of streamlining the decision-making process and making the president and his ministers more effective.

No compromise

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 cease-fire mediation efforts with ethnic rebel groups, he will be responsible for encouraging Burmese exiles and expatriates to return to the country.

He will reportedly also become a member of the national defense security council and be given a measure of authority over the military.

But the cabinet reshuffle announced at this time shows the president’s resolve not to compromise his reform process under any circumstances.

His aim is clearly to improve the efficiency of the government bureaucracy and inject new blood into the administration. Many of the new ministers are expected to be academics, businessmen, and technocrats.

This is reflected in Winston Set Aung’s appointment as the deputy minister for economic planning. Winston Set Aung is a businessman and economic consultant who has been acting as an economic adviser to the president for the last 12 months.

Major changes are also in the pipeline for the Central Bank. It is to be taken out from under the finance ministry and given semiautonomous status. Its work is to be increased and the number of its departments increased, with its staff almost doubled to some 2,600.

Lack of transparency

But there remains a bitter aftertaste from these changes—an acute lack of transparency. Traditional Burmese elite paternalism dominates, and the passing of the Foreign Investment Law through parliament adds to this concern.

Few people have seen it, according to MPs I spoke to last week.

U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell also confided to me that he had not seen it, though a senior delegation of American businessmen were in the capital two weeks ago, and he knew nothing of its contents—though not for want of trying, he assured me.

If the Burmese president is going to convince the international community and the Burmese public that he is not only well-intentioned but moving full speed ahead on his promised reforms, he must also be open and communicative.

The veil of secrecy and intrigue must be lifted.

During the last two weeks when I was in Burma, the President’s advisers remained in stiff-lipped silence as I badgered them with phone calls and questions.

Aung Gyi is going to have to tackle this, for the success of the Burmese democratic experiment will also depend on expectations and perceptions.

Larry Jagan is a former BBC regional correspondent who is based in Bangkok and has extensively covered Burma issues.





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