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.
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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.