Democracy Lab

Burma's President Shakes Up the Chessboard

Why the president's cabinet reshuffle portends a new move toward reform.

This week, as expected, the Burmese parliament gave its seal of approval to the cabinet reshuffle launched last week by President Thein Sein. The president's effort to rejuvenate his government is revealing. Though his government has been coming under fire from many directions lately, this isn't a desperate or defensive move. The reorganization of the cabinet actually represents an attempt to kick-start the stalled reform process. Thein Sein's choice of ministers shows that he is trying to centralize his administration even as he reduces the military's presence in it.

More than a dozen ministers have been replaced or sacked, while more than twenty new deputy ministers have been appointed. More changes are in the pipeline, according to government advisors. Some of the more renowned hardliners in the cabinet -- such as Construction Minister Khin Maung Myint and the oddly titled Minister for Electricity 1 Zaw Min -- have been sacked altogether. Others, including Information Minister Kyaw Hsan and Tourism Minister Tint Hsan, have been demoted.

But the most important aspect of the changeover is the large number of civilians that have been brought in, especially as deputy ministers. Almost all of them are former academics, businessmen, and civil servants. In this array of talent tapped by the president, the new deputy economic planning minister stands out: Winston Set Aung, a businessman, academic, and consultant who has been advising the president on economic matters for the past year. Government insiders hint that there may be more economics-oriented appointments like this to follow.

When ministers were sacked or reshuffled in the past, they were usually replaced by serving military officers or former military men. That was how the military dictators controlled power and ensured the cohesive support of the commanders. Thein Sein (shown at left in the photo above, as he welcomed Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last month) has now decided to break with that long-standing tradition and make his executive truly civilian (at least as far as the members of his cabinet team are concerned).

This has delighted the international community and local businessmen alike. Not only are the new faces being brought into the government civilian by origin and nature, but many of them, like Winston Aung, are thoroughly committed economic reformers, according to Australian economic specialist Sean Turnell. Burmese businessmen are now busily preparing for the "gold rush" -- the long-heralded influx of foreign direct investment from companies eager to get access to the country's rich natural resources and low-cost labor force. There's a general assumption that this process can only be accelerated by the president's cabinet reshuffle.

In last week's sweeping shake-up, Thein Sein replaced the ministers responsible for information, economic planning, finance, industry, and railways. The economic ministries are being transferred to the president's office. Finance Minister Hla Tun, Economic Planning Minister Tin Naing Thein, Industry Minister Soe Thein, and Railways Minister Aung Min have all effectively been promoted and transferred to the president's office to oversee the running of the economy. Four new ministries in the prime minister's office have now been formally agreed by parliament.

But the cabinet reshuffle also manifests another facet of Thein Sein's developing strategy (one that he may well have borrowed from his mentor, ex-strongman Than Shwe) -- namely, the concentration of power in his own office. "It's more a [government] re-organization than a reshuffle," said a government insider.

The four economic ministers will now oversee the country's economic development from inside the president's office. This means they will work directly under the president, which will free him up to concentrate on other matters, according to the president's political advisors. It will increase their direct access to the president and give them greater authority.

"It's all part of streamlining the decision-making process to make the president and his ministers more effective," says a government insider. But it is also a process of centralizing power in the president's office by creating an elite team of ministers -- a "super cabinet," if you will -- that will take responsibility for much of the government's administrative work.

Minister Soe Thein will continue to chair the powerful Myanmar Investment Commission, which oversees domestic investment projects and will play a major role in monitoring international ventures once the new proposed foreign investment law is finalized.

Massive changes to the Central Bank are also in the pipeline. It will no longer be under the finance ministry, but semi-autonomous, with the governor's position raised to the ministerial level. The bank will be substantially expanded, the number of divisions increased, and the staff almost doubled to more than 2,500.

Several ministries are being merged or shut down. The government is closing the Industrial Development Ministry, which overseas planned industrial mega-projects, and transferring responsibility for them to the president's office. Other ministries are being consolidated, including combining the two electric power ministries into one. The aim, according to the president, is to allow better supervision and cooperation to ensure adequate production and supply of electricity. Government insiders say that more reorganization of the civil service is also in the pipeline.

Another crucial change is the promotion of the former railways minister Aung Min to a minister in the president's office commissioned with overseeing national reconciliation efforts. Apart from continuing his ceasefire mediation efforts with ethnic rebel groups, he will be responsible for encouraging Burmese exiles and expatriates to return to the country. He will also, reportedly, become a member of the national defense security council, and be given a measure of authority over the military.

The president's cabinet reshuffle is only part of a broader strategy to build a wider consensus behind his reform process. It started with the appointment of a new vice president, the former naval commander Nyan Tun, after his predecessor resigned on grounds of alleged ill health. Nyan Tun is something of a Thein Sein clone: soft-spoken, fiercely loyal, and very cautious. But he will also steadfastly uphold the interests of the military, sources close to him say.

Nyan Tun's appointment is essentially the army's way of supporting the beleaguered president. They are committed to Thein Sein and his reform agenda, according to informed sources inside the military. In particular, the chief of the army, vice-senior general Min Aung Hlaing, has emerged as a staunch supporter of Thein Sein. He wants the democratic experiment to work -- and Thein Sein needs all the help he can get. He is at loggerheads with parliament over constitutional issues. The democratic opposition is taking advantage of newly won media freedoms to agitate for change. The government's war with the Kachin ethnic minority is intensifying, and recently achieved peace deals with other groups are developing cracks. Strikes, rural protests against illegal land grabs, and religious violence in the west of the country in Arakan have compounded the president's impotence. Only the international community and the army seem to steadfastly support him.

His only hope now is that the greater emphasis on government efficiency will provide concrete results and clear the logjam in the reform process. "The battle between the hardliners and reformers has been exaggerated," a presidential advisor told me recently, on condition of anonymity. "The fault line is between competence and incompetence; between effectiveness and ineffectiveness," he added. The government must deliver on its promises, another insider said, and time is running out.

Many people have begun to wonder when they're finally going to see the long-awaited "democracy dividend." Earlier last month, President Thein announced that the government's immediate priority was to boost economic growth by 8 percent a year and provide real income growth for everyone. Many Burmese economists, though, believe the president's plans are over ambitious and unrealistic, especially the proposed increase of per capita income to $3000 by 2015.

So while Thein Sein will retire at the end of his current term as president, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party knows that if they are to have any chance against the opposition -- the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi -- at the next elections in 2015, the government must improve peoples' standard of living.



Freeing the Press

Will the relaxation of Burma's severe censorship laws usher in the age of a responsible, responsive media -- or are Burmese journalists right to worry that the state is still watching them closely?

On November 13, 2010, Nobel Laureate and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. A few days later a sports magazine called First Eleven ran a full front-page story with three innocuous-looking headlines -- "Sunderland Freeze Chelsea," "United Stunned by Villa" and  "Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope" -- about a trio of English Premier League soccer matches. The journal submitted its advance copy of the page in black and white to the country's notorious censorship board for approval. It was passed.

But when the journal reached newsstands, the combined headlines -- "SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE" -- were splashed with an ingenious play of color variations. The parts of the text highlighted in bright red revealed a new message: "Su ... free ... unite ... & ... advance to grab the ... hope." That struck a rather different note from the coverage at the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which reported that Suu Kyi had been "pardoned" because of her good behavior during her years of house detention.

No wonder Eleven Journal quickly became the talk of the town in Rangoon. As a result, the censorship board, officially known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), suspended the magazine for two weeks. At least seven other news weeklies, including 7Day News, The Venus News, People's Era, and The Voice, were also suspended for a week for their coverage of Suu Kyi's release.

That was almost two years ago, and much has changed in Burma since. On August 20, the pseudo-civilian government dramatically shifted course by announcing that its 48-year-long practice of media censorship is now over. This announcement marks the culmination of a series of media reforms introduced by the new government that took power in 2011. In June 2011, the government started the first phase of reform by lifting censorship on publications involving the arts, health, technology, and sports. The second phase, which began in December 2011 , removed censorship requirements from publications related to economics, crime, and the law. The third and fourth phases, which took place in March and May of this year, rolled back restrictions on the media dealing with education and literature. And the latest reform -- the one from last month -- lifted censorship on publications dealing with politics, religion, history, calendars, and songs.

Today, if you find yourself strolling past the newsstands of Rangoon, the latest issues of the weekly journals are likely to have picture of Suu Kyi and other opposition figures splashed across their covers. Not surprisingly, Burmese readers tend to be better informed these days -- and not only about the pro-democracy forces (who once had to rely on the exile media to transmit their messages to the public), but also about once-taboo topics such as the ethnic civil wars in the country's borderlands, critical reporting 0n the Chinese government (long the Burmese regime's patron), and public protests against government policies.

For instance, the August 30 issue of 7Day News, which has one of the largest circulations among the weekly journals, bears the front-page headline: "Chinese government repatriates Kachin war refugees [back to Burma]," with a photo of the refugees. Inside, there's even more candor. Its article on the war starts off this way: "The parliamentary sessions held until now have not discussed comprehensively the wars in Kachin ethnic state, which have caused tens of thousands of refugees and cost the country massive military spending in just over a year."

The Venus News, another popular weekly,  ran several striking stories in a recent issue: about child soldiers in the Burmese army, the confiscation of farming lands, and the socio-economic domination of Chinese illegal immigrants in northeastern Burma. This kind of reporting would have been unthinkable over a year ago. But now the Burmese public is enjoying unprecedented access to information for the first time in fifty years.

That doesn't mean that the specter of censorship is entirely dead. All magazine and journal publishers must continue to submit dozens of each week's copies to the censor board after they are published. Ye Htut, the director general of the Information and Public Relations Department at the Ministry of Information, told the press on August 24 that this practice is just for the sake of public records and distribution to libraries. Many local journalists doubt it. They point out that the PSRD still controls registration and annual license renewal for all publications. For now, the change is merely one from pre-censorship to post-censorship -- by monitoring what has already been published.

"The authorities continue to influence the decisions of editors and publishers by maintaining the repressive laws from the previous regime as well as by controlling the registration and license rights for publications," Zaw Thet Htwe, the spokesperson of the Committee for Freedom of the Press (CFP), told me in an interview.

Despite the announcement of the new censorship rollback, the PSRD has circulated 16 guidelines to local news journals, warning editors that, among other things, "the state shall not be negatively criticized." The bottom line is that if any publication crosses the line of these regulations, they will risk prosecution under Burma's existing laws.

However, the current constitution, drafted by the military government and approved in a flawed 2008 referendum, uses fuzzy language in describing citizen's right to freedom of expression. It states that every citizen may exercise the right "to express and publish their convictions and opinions," but only if they are "not contrary to the laws enacted for the security of the Union, the maintenance of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality." In practice, the laws and regulations are broadly worded and open to arbitrary or selective enforcement. For instance, the most notorious and frequently used piece of censorship legislation is the Electronic Transactions Law (ETL). Under Section 33 of the law, Internet users face prison terms of seven to 15 years and possible fines for "any act detrimental to" state security, law and order, community peace and tranquility, national solidarity, the national economy, or national culture. This may include any act of "receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to" the above broadly defined proscribed areas. In August 2011, state-run media explicitly warned that the ETL could also apply to those who defame individuals and organizations on Facebook.

In the past, many journalists were charged and sentenced to lengthy prison terms under this law. (Almost all of those who were charged under this law have now been released.) According to the Information Ministry, a new media law is expected to pass later this year. But so far the authorities have not sought any input from journalists or editors.

"We welcome the news of the end of censorship," says Kyaw Min Swe, the chief editor of The Voice, which is currently dealing with a lawsuit from the Ministry of Mines for its reporting on ministerial corruption. "However, after five decades under the dictatorial regime, I've found that many journalists still don't really trust the rhetoric of reform," he told me. The Voice, which is one of the most influential journals in Burma, was suspended by the censorship board six times over the past decade, most recently in early August.

The fate of media reform has a lot to do with the overall trajectory of political transition in the country. On August 27, the President Thein Sein conducted a major reshuffle by shifting or removing nine ministers within his 29-member cabinet and adding 15 new deputy ministers. Many view this cabinet shake-up, the biggest since Thein Sein took power last year, as the president's effort to consolidate the reformists and marginalize the hardliners. Of particularly positive note is the transfer of hardline Information Minister Kyaw Hsan (once dubbed "Comical Ali" by a Thai daily newspaper in reference to a notorious Iraqi propaganda chief) to a far less important ministerial post that oversees the country's remaining cooperative enterprises. His replacement, the new information minister, Aung Kyi, once served as the government's liaison with Aung San Suu Kyi, and is known to be more moderate.

Many journalists expect that these changes at the top will make a major difference in the government's handling of media sector. "We hope this ministerial change will improve the government's attitude toward the fourth estate," says Maung Wuntha, a well-respected veteran journalist and an editor of The People's Age. "We hope they will listen to the voices of media practitioners to improve what is now the seventh version of the media law. So far, real reporters have no clue what's in it."

But others say that changes at the top aren't enough. That's because officials still have a deep-seated distrust of the media. "Bureaucratic sources are still afraid of speaking to the media," says Zaw Thet Htwe. "When we approach officials to interview them, they assume that it's an interrogation that could hurt their careers. The culture of fear remains strong in the bureaucracy. No one is willing to take responsibility and be accountable."

At the same time, the development of the local media still has a long way to go. For example, in coverage of the recent sectarian riots in western Burma, many observers note that some prominent Burmese weeklies and their widely read web postings failed to provide impartial reporting -- instead fueling racial tension by publishing highly sensationalized and opinionated articles.

"All sectors in this country, including the media, need to become more professional," says Kyaw Min Swe. "Recently we've seen some of our media outlets pursuing a propagandistic agenda and populist stance in their coverage of the communal violence in Arakan state and other news."

Many local journalists say that they want to do responsible investigative reporting, but that they don't know how to do so properly or that their editors won't provide the necessary resources to undertake such an assignment.

Hopefully, the end of decades of censorship will gradually remove all legal constraints and open up more opportunities for the growth of a responsible, professional Burmese media. Before the 1962 military coup, Burma enjoyed a vibrant free press. One can only hope that it soon will again.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages