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Politics

Ministry reshuffle could threaten Myanmar military's interests

YANGON -- Incoming President Htin Kyaw proposed slashing Myanmar's ministries from 31 to 21 Thursday as a first step toward improving efficiency, a move that could create friction with a military keen to defend its interests.

     The proposal integrates a number of ministries with similar portfolios, including the economic development and finance ministries and the energy and electric power ministries. A new ministry of ethnic affairs will be formed to safeguard minorities' rights.

     The structure in place under outgoing President Thein Sein was criticized as inefficient, with the economic ministries in particular having overlapping functions. Myanmar's budget deficit has been widening steadily since the transition to democracy. The ruling National League for Democracy has promised a more efficient, transparent government.

     The proposed changes present an opportunity to demonstrate the incoming government's ability to get things done. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was named chairwoman Thursday of the Hluttaw Development Coordination Team, a new parliamentary organization. Myanmar's constitution does not allow cabinet members to be active in political parties, automatically barring them from parliament. Suu Kyi's new role suggests that she will focus on steering the legislature as NLD leader rather than assume a cabinet post.

     Htin Kyaw lacks any political experience and is generally regarded as a proxy of Suu Kyi. He likely put forward this sweeping reform ahead of the new government's inauguration this month in a bid to dispel these doubts.

     The proposal will be debated in parliament Friday and could be approved the same day. Foreign investors applaud the idea, expecting it to simplify the investment process.

     But a reshuffle could jeopardize vested interests in the military. Myanmar's abundant mineral and forest resources are a gravy train for military-affiliated groups and business figures enjoying cozy relationships with former junta leaders. The new cabinet structure merges the mining ministry with the environmental conservation and forestry ministry. The NLD has advocated lawful and fair resource development since before the election, leading to speculation that this change is a stepping stone toward cutting into military interests.

     Although the military officially takes a conciliatory stance toward the incoming government, it is sensitive to NLD actions that conflict with its interests. When an NLD member commented in parliament last month about the environmental harm caused by a resource development project in which the military is involved, the entire contingent of military lawmakers stood up to object.

     Myanmar's constitution reserves a quarter of parliament seats and three cabinet posts, including defense and home affairs, for the military. The NLD and the military are deeply at odds on such issues as revising the constitution, raising concerns about conflict within the cabinet. The debate over the proposed ministry changes will likely serve as a barometer for prospects of later cooperation.

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