Myanmar’s parliament on Monday approved a proposal by the incoming government to reduce the number of ministries in the nation’s bloated bureaucracy in a move that will save more than U.S. $4 million over the next years.
Lawmakers voted 611-3 in favor of the motion that cut the number of government ministries to 21 from 36 as well as trimmed the number of government ministers to 18, according to media reports.
President-elect Htin Kyaw, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party will officially take over the government on April 1, told lawmakers that the savings would be directed to services that would help the developing country’s citizens during his five-year term.
“The country will save about 5 billion kyats [U.S. $4.13 million] from the reduced [number of] ministries and ministers,” he said. “We can use this budget for people in need to make their lives better, such as using it for health care, education and rural development.”
Htin Kyaw will submit a list of nominated ministers to parliament on Tuesday, while military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing will nominate leaders for the ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs, which are controlled by the Tatmadaw, or government armed forces.
Htin Kyaw, a close aide to NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi and who will run the government as her proxy, also emphasized to lawmakers the importance of the new ethnic affairs ministry—the only new portfolio added to the government’s lineup of ministries—in repairing relations with the country’s various ethnic minority groups, some of whom continue to be involved in armed hostilities with the Myanmar army.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is prohibited from becoming president because she has foreign-born relatives, will remain head of the NLD and not likely assume a formal position in the new government, according to local media reports.
Nevertheless, she has made ethnic unity and national reconciliation a government priority to end Myanmar's half-century of civil wars.
The Rohingya question
Tens of thousands of citizens have been displaced by conflicts between armed ethnic groups and the government military mainly in northern Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states, while more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims remain in camps in western Rakhine state where they have been forced to live following communal violence with ethnic Buddhists in 2012.
The Rohingyas face discrimination from the government which sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations.
The government has denied them citizenship, restricted their movements, and disenfranchised them during the national elections last November, which the NLD swept.
The United Nations estimated on Monday that about 25,000 Rohingya have left camps in Rakhine and returned to their home communities where they have rebuilt houses, Reuters reported.
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) told Reuters that some Rohingyas began moving out of the camps a year ago under a process led by the Myanmar government, and the number of camps for displaced people in Rakhine had fallen to 40 from 67.
Roughly 120,000 other Rohingyas continue to live in the squalid camps, while thousands of others have risked their lives at sea over the last few years to flee persecution in the Buddhist-dominated nation.
Human rights groups have criticized Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD for remaining silent on the Rohingya issue and not standing up for them.
Volker Turk, the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, told the media following an event on refugees on Monday in Bangkok that the international community viewed the situation in Rakhine as complicated, and he hoped that the NLD would find a way to address it, Agence France-Presse reported.
Both the U.N. and European Union indicated that hope that conditions would improve for the Rohingya under the NLD-led government had contributed to the decline in the number fleeing to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
‘Enemies of the state’
Ba Shein, a lawmaker who represents the coastal Kyaukphyu constituency in Rakhine told AFP that he does not believe the new ethnic affairs ministry can resolve Rakhine state’s communal rifts.
“The ministry of ethnic affairs is concerned with Myanmar ethnics,” he was quoted as saying. “Bengali people are not one of our ethnic groups.”
Such sentiments prompted Cardinal Maung Bo, the country’s first Roman Catholic cardinal who has pledged to work towards peace and reconciliation between Myanmar’s Buddhists and Muslims, to brand those who discriminate against others on the basis of race as foes of the nation.
“Those who practice racial discrimination are enemies of the state, not the ones who build the state,” he said Monday. “It is important to take action against such people. We have to have justice first, then peace. Only peace can bring development.”
Reported by Win Naung Toe and Kyaw Tun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.