Ministers facing the chop

There seems to be little doubt that a reshuffle of government ministers is on the horizon, as the NLD seeks to respond to criticism that it is underperforming.

By MRATT KYAW THU | FRONTIER

THERE IS no doubt that State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will reshuffle her government. The big questions – questions that many are now asking – are when, and who will come and go.

A number of ministers in her cabinet – and some in state and regional governments – have been conspicuous by their absence from public view since they assumed their portfolio responsibilities nearly a year ago.

Predictably, you wouldn’t know anything was amiss by reading the state-run mouthpieces Myanma Alinn and Kyemon. They are still gushing with information about the activities of the State Counsellor and the ministers in her National League for Democracy government.

But rumours about a reshuffle have been rife since Deputy Agriculture Minister Dr Tun Win was sacked last November after clashing with his minister, Dr Aung Thu.

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The gossip has even involved the nation’s top job. In December, a rumour began circulating in December that President U Htin Kyaw had asked to resign as head of state.

Frontier approached dozens of Pyidaungsu Hluttaw MPs for this report and all rejected any suggestion Htin Kyaw would be leaving office.

But they had no doubt that some ministers in the Union and state and regional governments are facing the chop.

“It will happen after the by-elections because before that we’ll be too busy,” one MP said on condition of anonymity, referring to the vote on April 1 to fill 19 vacancies in the nation’s parliaments.

Growing unrest

The reshuffle rumours are emerging amid growing criticism over the government’s performance. Almost a year after it took office, most observers agree that the government can claim few significant achievements. The change that was promised in the 2015 election has failed to materialise.

MPs say the NLD government has been unable to achieve more progress because of problems inherited from the previous administration, particularly the corruption that is rampant through the civil service and business community.

However, some MPs say the cabinet is constrained because it has to wait until decisions are made – or orders issued – by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Others suggest that even the more capable ministers have had trouble managing their bureaucrats, particularly when trying to implement new policies.

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President U Htin Kyaw attends the opening ceremony of World Economic Forum on the Mekong region in Hanoi on October 25, 2016. Rumours began circulating in December that the president wanted to resign, although these have been denied by lawmakers. (AFP)

NLD central executive committee member U Win Htein declined to confirm whether there would be a reshuffle. But in a recent interview with Frontier in Nay Pyi Taw he strongly hinted that one is planned and acknowledged the government was being criticised for a lack of progress.

He acknowledged that “some ministers have shortcomings” and they had attracted criticism from the public as a result. He attributed the problems partly to a lack of experience in government after decades of military rule.

He added that the party hoped their performance would improve over time.

“I will report to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and she will decide,” he added.

Win Htein was asked about criticism of senior party officials getting involved in government and cabinet affairs, particularly the sacking of Tun Win. The deputy minister said after his dismissal that Win Htein had on several occasions tried to persuade him to resign and take up a post on Nay Pyi Taw Council instead.

“The important thing is that someone should serve their duty and adhere to what the NLD wants to achieve. But if someone goes astray … we have to correct that,” he said.

Political writer and Amyotha Hluttaw lawmaker U Win Htut Zaw (NLD, Sagaing-5) said most ministers were struggling due to a lack of political experience.

“It doesn’t matter whether they have five or 10 PhDs. Especially in Myanmar, that’s not what’s important,” he said. “The fact is that they [ministers] are moving and acting too slowly.”

State and region ministers in spotlight

While attention is mostly trained on Nay Pyi Taw, a looming reshuffle in state and regional governments could also be far-reaching. With a few exceptions, there have been no notable achievements by ministers in state and regional governments.

Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein is perceived as working hard to bring positive change to the commercial capital, while Tanintharyi Region Chief Minister Daw Lei Lei Maw has also been decisive and willing to take on some of the more difficult issues affecting southern Myanmar.

Government officials in Mon, Rakhine and Shan states and in Magway Region have told Frontier that some ministers are exhibiting signs of discomfort over reshuffle rumours.

One senior government appointee seems almost certain to be replaced. On February 18, the embattled Mon State Chief Minister U Min Min Oo announced that he had submitted a formal resignation. “I resign. Thank you all,” he wrote on Facebook.

Rumours have circulated about Min Min Oo’s impending departure since November, when he told an NLD branch meeting he wanted to quit. At the same time, lawmakers had submitted a formal complaint to party headquarters over his conduct, including allegations of poor performance and inappropriate dealings with the business community.

In late November, the NLD formed a three-member investigation team headed by CEC member U Nyan Win to examine the allegations, and Min Min Oo was interviewed in early December.

Saw Aung Myint Khine, the state’s minister for Kayin ethnic affairs, confirmed that Min Min Oo had submitted his resignation because he couldn’t stand the “work stress and complaints”.

However, MPs and government officials in Mon have told Frontier that there are few candidates to replace Min Min Oo, who is also the state’s Minister for Urban Development and Construction, and that is the main reason why he had not left office earlier.

In Shan State, Chief Minister U Lin Htut is the target of complaints that he does not spend enough time among the people, especially those living in the north and east of the nation’s biggest state.

There was disappointment that he did not show support for the residents of Muse by travelling there after it was attacked by an alliance of ethnic armed groups last November. There has also been criticism about a lack of development in Shan since the change of government.

Asked by Frontier about the rumours of an impending reshuffle, Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein responded that it was not causing any tension or unease within his cabinet. “My region has no changes and I have no worries,” he said.

Union Solidarity and Development Party MP U Khin Aung Myint (Amyotha Hluttaw, Mandalay-8), a former upper house speaker, said it was “a bit early” to criticise the NLD cabinet.

But Win Htein’s attitude is clear. “The NLD’s objective is to develop the country, raise the people’s standard of living, create jobs; so if that’s not happening, I won’t waste any time in making changes.”

TOP PHOTO: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her government are sworn in by Amyotha Hluttaw Speaker Mahn Win Khaing Than on March 30, 2016. (AFP)

By Mratt Kyaw Thu

By Mratt Kyaw Thu

Mratt is a Senior Reporter at Frontier. He began his career at Unity Weekly Journal in 2010 and focuses on political reporting. In 2017 he won the Agence France-Presse Kate Webb prize for his coverage of ethnic strife in Myanmar.
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