Myanmar government overhaul imminent

Myanmar government overhaul imminent

A major shake-up in Myanmar's administration is in the pipeline as the government tries to tackle obstacles that stand in the way of economic progress, improved transparency and a more efficient bureaucracy.

The new strategy will concentrate on personnel, policies and reform, according to government insiders. "The government needs to urgently deal with corruption, bureaucratic inertia and the lack of constructive policies," KK Hlaing, a prominent Myanmar businessman and political commentator, told Asia Focus.

"Most ministers are incompetent, cannot think creatively and are incapable of taking any independent initiative," he said.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is increasingly aware of the limitations of her team and is preparing to confront these problems in the coming weeks, sources say. For example, deputy ministers have been appointed to some ministries that were without them over the last 18 months, including the Ministry of Information.

A new construction minister -- Han Zaw, an engineer with substantial previous government experience -- has already been appointed. This will allow Win Khaing, who has held both the construction and energy portfolios since August, to concentrate on expanding access to electricity in a country where only 37% of people are connected to the grid.

Having a minister to focus solely on construction is also important, said a senior government source, given the need for reconstruction in strife-torn Rakhine state in preparation for the return of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Bangladesh.

More ministerial changes are in the pipeline, according to a senior official of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), who spoke on condition of anonymity. The ministers for Agriculture and Fisheries, Education, Tourism and Hotels and Commerce are tipped to be changed in the coming three months. It won't be a reshuffle as such, since the ministers will be replaced gradually. "One of the problems is finding appropriate and experienced alternatives," he said.

Several significant changes have also taken place at the state and regional levels. A new Irrawaddy regional chief minister has been appointed, and changes have been made to regional ministers in Bago, Irrawaddy, Magwe and Rakhine. Neither the central government nor the NLD has commented but analysts believe the changes likely were made because of corruption or incompetence.

Over the past few months, 30 MPs, including some regional ministers, have come under investigation for alleged corruption and mismanagement, said Monywa Aung Shin, the secretary of the NLD's information committee. "The government takes three things into consideration in making changes: performance; complaints about corruption and social problems; and health," he said.

The head of the ruling party's complaints committee, Dr Myo Nyunt, told reporters in August that the panel had received around 400 complaints against its lawmakers and ministers since the party took office in April 2016.

"The NLD government is reshuffling key players in order to improve its capacity, and more changes will come, as necessary," said Monywa Aung Shin.

After two years as head of an elected civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi faces a crucial year ahead. The government and the bureaucracy need to step up, says Ye Min Oo, a member of the NLD economic committee. "They need to show they can deliver some kind of change. The next three months will be decisive," he told Asia Focus.

Commentators and business leaders believe the government needs to dramatically address the economy, or confidence will decline further and dent the NLD's election prospects in three years' time. But the difficulties confronting the government are immense. The problems of Rakhine and preparations for the Panglong peace conference are dominating its priorities, resulting in economic planning being postponed.

"There are no ideas, no vision and no direction coming from the government," Tin Maung Than, an economist and a senior adviser to Mandalay Chief Minister Zaw Myint Maung, told Asia Focus. Aung San Suu Kyi must get her government back on track and rekindle the reform spirit, he added.

Analysts and businessmen have identified two main issues: growing corruption and bureaucratic malaise. MPs agree corruption needs more attention. "There is no doubt that businessmen generally feel that corruption is increasingly rearing its head again under the NLD government, especially in certain sectors," said Maung Maung Lay, vice-chairman of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The government recently strengthened the parliamentary anti-corruption commission -- originally formed in 2013 after the Anti-Corruption Law was enacted -- and appointed a new chairman, Aung Kyi, a retired military officer and former minister.

Many analysts and businessmen, though, are pointing the finger at the bureaucracy as the main obstacle to reforms. Public servants are not part of the solution but part of the continuing problem, say government insiders. Instead of much-needed deregulation, public servants are sticking to procedures and insisting on the rules and regulations, said Tin Maung Than.

"Vision is not in the ministerial strategy," he said. "What is needed is to identify who will take care of the strategy, and who is going to implement it." It is going to take a long time to improve the bureaucracy, he predicted.

But many businessmen believe the real problem is more structural, as it is unclear who in government is responsible for economic policy. There is division, duplication and fragmentation of policy, according to a prominent businessman and NLD member, Ye Min Oo. The executive branch is pitted against the party, with very little horizontal communication, let alone discussion. Policy is developed in silos, he said.

The party has revamped its economic committee, which discusses policy and passes recommendations to the State Counsellor, through the party's central executive committee. No ministers serve on this committee, as the constitution prohibits executive members taking part in party matters.

A few months into her administration, the state counsellor set up the National Economic Coordinating Committee with a mix of economic experts, ministers and government officials. The finance minister chairs the body, which is supposed to meet once a month but has not always managed to meet that often.

But a few months ago Aung San Suu Kyi established yet another economic advisory committee, which seemed to take precedence over the other two. She chairs this body, which meets monthly and includes 11 ministers. The minister in the State Counsellor's office, former diplomat Kyaw Tint Swe, is the lead in this committee, say government insiders.

The real problem is that authority for the economy has passed from the finance minister to the State Counsellor's office and Kyaw Tint Swe, according to Ye Min Oo. Diplomats are now running the show, he said, and not just on the economy.

The government recently appointed Aung Thu -- another former ambassador -- as deputy commerce minister. Thaung Tun, another former diplomat earlier appointed as a national security adviser, was recently made Minister for the Office of the Union Government, which coordinates policy, especially between the national government and regional administrations. Another former diplomat, Kyaw Tint, a deputy foreign minister, was made Minister for International Cooperation.

Many businessmen sympathise with Aung San Suu Kyi as she tries to balance priorities, formulate effective policies and ensure they are implemented. Some businessmen advocate the appointment of an all-powerful economic czar, similar to Thein Sein's approach in the immediate past, but they insist this person must have business experience.

Another solution, according to others, would be to appoint a prime minister or someone who could act as head of the cabinet, to relieve the pressure on the state counsellor. President Htin Kyaw could have fulfilled that function, but with increasing doubts about his health, another authoritative figure is desperately needed. But of course, the constitution does not allow for a prime minister.

"We in the party shouldn't blame the government for the current situation. We have to explain what we have done," said Ye Min Oo. "But we have to deliver, we have to show results," he added. And for that, time is running out.

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