There has been much talk recently of the slowing of reform in Myanmar. Criticism of Myanmar's government has resurfaced over the refusal to allow constitutional changes that would permit Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president, as well as the high-profile sentencing of journalists and the ongoing communal violence and humanitarian disaster in Rakhine State. Last week the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar stated that there were indications the country was 'backtracking' in its reforms.
As such, a major government reshuffle perhaps should not come as a surprise.
A little over a year out from Myanmar's much anticipated elections, the resignation of two key ministers on Wednesday — Minister of Information Aung Kyi and Minister of Health Dr Pe Thet Khin — shows the Government's positioning (and perhaps responsiveness) after recent criticism. Previous cabinet resignations were later shown to be forced, creating speculation over this most recent reshuffle. Indeed, presidential spokesperson and likely new Minister of Information Ye Htut noted that the president had found shortcomings in the outgoing ministers' performances.
Moreover, both ministers have been under considerable pressure recently.
The Minister of Health has been criticised for his handling of humanitarian aid groups which are providing medical assistance in troubled Rakhine state, and because of persistent low levels of health care in Myanmar despite significant increases in spending. Similarly, there has been ongoing criticism of media reforms under the Ministry of Information. The jailing of five journalists in July was met with wide censure in international press. In the absence of a functioning independent regulatory body, the Ministry has played the role of arbiter, leading to self-censorship by journalists (such as this internal memo by the Australian editor of the Myanmar Times asking his journalists not to report on the plight of Muslim without his consent).
The cabinet reshuffle elevates (pending parliamentary approval) two deputy ministers to the top posts of Information and Health. They are Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut and Deputy Health Minister Than Aung.
Ye Htut is the high-profile mover in the reshuffle. Known locally as the Minister of Facebook for his prolific use of social media, he was pivotal in laying the beginnings of media reform from 2007 (a wonderful interview with him here). While his strong positions on press freedoms have put many local journalists off-side, he has proven a capable front man for Thein Sein, often stealing the limelight with his good command of English and soundbite media appearances. The former lieutenant colonel is close to the president and will proactively toe the government line.
The reshuffle will mean three ministers have been replaced in the last two months. The Minister of Religious Affairs Hsan Hsint was sacked in June after angering much of the Sangha, the powerful community of 400,000 monks, following a raid on a monastery. As the presidential spokeperson said at the time of his dismissal, he 'acted beyond the president's instructions so we had to take action against him.'
The reshuffle should strengthen the capacity of Thein Sein's government. The new ministers, notably Ye Htut, will be essential in shepherding through the last wave of reforms before the elections. As such their role will be pivotal to the public assessment of the ruling USDP's performance and ultimately its success in the 2015 election.