By Gwen Robinson in Bangkok
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Myanmar’s president is contemplating cabinet changes that could reduce the power of some anti-reform ministers in the wake of his party’s crushing election defeat earlier this month.
Several people close to the government said Mr Thein Sein was also considering the move – which could see some “hardliners” moved to different roles or have their responsibilities reduced – because of concerns about how far western countries will go in lifting sanctions.
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Mr Thein Sein, who launched the reform process that has sparked a new attitude towards Myanmar around the world, has discussed possible changes with his reformist allies, say people close to the government, who added that the overhaul of the 37-member cabinet could come within weeks
Some of Mr Thein Sein’s allies have warned that mixed signals from the west – highlighted by calls by UK prime minister David Cameron to suspend and not lift sanctions – could strengthen reactionary elements and lead them to obstruct reform. In a worrying sign for the reformers, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose support for lifting sanctions is seen as key, supported Mr Cameron.
This is adding to the pressure on Mr Thein Sein who, having convinced conservatives to go along with his radical reforms, is now expected to deliver the economic benefits of democratisation, which one adviser describes as the “removal of sanctions, not some half-baked measures”.
Vice-president Tin Aung Myint Oo is among those in the hardline camp, which includes the leaders of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development party, Aung Thaung and U Htay Oo. It also includes Kyaw San, the information minister, and Zaw Min, the electric power minister.
The opposition NLD won 43 of the 45 seats in last month’s by-election, which far exceeded even its own expectations. The orderly conduct of the polls and Ms Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the process were seen as vital to any easing of western sanctions.
But suspension rather than removal of restrictions amounts to highly qualified support that could still deter western business from substantial investment, in the view of local and foreign analysts.
Fresh doubts among hardliners about the value of the reform process underline reports of an intensifying power struggle within government and parliament.
Officials recently denied such suggestions in local media. But as the USDP assesses its electoral rout, analysts are watching for signs that hardliners would use the defeat to curb the president’s reforms.
“After the recent developments, it’s a very good time to make changes,” says one person close to the government. “it has become much clearer where the new challenges are, where they need stronger, more competent people – although it is still not decided if people get dropped or just if there is a reshuffle of responsibilities”.
The cabinet, he noted, is a “complete mix, of some holdovers from the old government, under the previous regime, and people personally selected by the president”.
Some advisers argue, however, that the USDP’s defeat and international plaudits for the polls have strengthened the president’s hand, proving he is “on the right path”.
“At a personal level they [conservatives] know if we don’t reform ourselves, then we will hand the NLD or others a sweeping victory in 2015,” says one government adviser, referring to the national elections expected to take place in three years.
With Ms Suu Kyi and her team of MPs to enter parliament when it reconvenes next week, one adviser said the relationship between Mr Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, the influential house speaker and USDP head, and Ms Suu Kyi was providing a “new equilibrium” that was the emerging driver of reform.
The military, which is allocated 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, remains a pervasive force. But so far it has supported major reforms both in parliament and cabinet.
“The biggest challenge in our society is how to establish this new equilibrium … these three power centres [president, speaker and opposition leader] must be strong enough to offset attacks from hardliners on the legislative and executive sides,” said the adviser. “It must be a workable mechanism.”
As the USDP looks to revamp its party machine to compete in the 2015 national poll, people close to the government say the president and his parliamentary allies could use the “reform or die” lesson of the by-election to move against opponents.
One government member was recently quoted as saying that about 20 per cent of the cabinet were reformers, 20 per cent hardliners and the other 60 per cent were “fence-sitting, waiting to see who would win”. He later backtracked, privately saying the quote had provoked a backlash within cabinet.
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