Burma's Reforms Continue

The pace of change in Burma, exemplified by the against-the-odds cabinet reshuffle by President Thein Sein that consigned several hardliners to the scrap heap, shows no sign of slowing. In particular, the country’s newly appointed Information Minister Aung Kyi is regarded as moderate and most of the country’s journalists are cautiously optimistic about his appointment.

The government also removed Deputy Minister Soe Win and promoted Ye Htut, a former colonel and director-general of the Information and Public Relations Department at the Information Ministry who is known as a bookish moderate, in his place. Ye Htut is also active in Facebook, one of the most popular social media networks inside Burma as well as outside. Since his appointment as deputy minister the former colonel has pledged to work on media reform and to work with everyone including skeptics. However, it is hard to predict if Burma will witness more press freedom when the new and supposedly liberal media law is introduced.

Those appointments follow a major reshuffle on Aug. 28, in which Thein Sein elevated four key ministers to a joint role in the president’s office and bounced hardliner Kyaw Hsan in favor of Aung Kyi as information minister. Earlier this month, Thein Sein also appointed Admiral Nyan Tun, who has a reputation as a political moderate, to replace hardliner Tin Aung Myint Oo, who was closely linked to the former junta chief Than Shwe, as vice president.

The four to be elevated include Railway Minister Aung Min, who has played a leading role in ceasefire talks with ethnic rebels, Finance Minister Hla Tun and Industry Minister Soe Thein, who have played major roles in the country’s fast-changing economic framework. This in fact strengthened Thein Sein’s hands as many skeptics in the past believed the president had very few reformists ministers. Some political observers criticized him for creating a mini cabinet within the cabinet as he elevated his trusted ministers attached to his president office.

So far Thein Sein has also overseen the release of hundreds of political prisoners and abolished pre-publication press censorship, managing to prevail over hardliners who have continued to resist his reforms.

Tough challenges are ahead, however, as Thein Sein also needs to demonstrate he has control over the armed forces since fighting in Kachin State, northern Burma, has escalated. It is believed that troops in Kachin State did not comply the president’s order to halt the offensive against insurgents. Burmese side suffered heavy casualties. This week, Gen Zay Yar Aung, Northern Commander, was replaced by Gen Htun Htun Naung. After 60 years of press repression, Aung Kyi’s appointment as media chief is being greeted with relief by journalists. In a recent interview with the Rangoon-based Myanmar Times, Aung Kyi said that Burma will allow daily newspapers in 2013. “It is my sincere belief that daily private sector newspapers are essential for a democratic country,” the minister was quoted as saying.

Indeed, Aung Kyi said he would devote his time to working on drafting the new media law and promised that the comprehensive legislation will meet international standards. This means that the current draft must be improved. If so, it is possible that he will invite input from journalists. Industry veterans have complained that they have not seen the draft—it is known to have been modified several times under previous Information Minister Kyaw Hsan.

The decision to replace Kyaw Hsan with Aung Kyi came from Naypyidaw as the President’s Office believed that he is reform-minded and suitable to assume the hot seat. Since coming to office, Aung Kyi has held meetings with senior officials and received numerous briefings. It is believed that he will shake up the ministry as it has been plagued by allegations of corruption.

Many former army officers also work in the ministry and perform surveillance tasks by monitoring websites and social media networks such as Facebook. They also set up several proxy websites to counter media both in and outside the country.

This infamous crusade of interference was launched under Kyaw Hsan to disrupt unfavorable reporting but will now likely be scrapped, said several ministry sources. This was also part of the military’s psychological warfare campaign.

In his first week, Aung Kyi also invited Maung Wun Tha, the president of the interim press council, for a meeting. The press council head’s first impression was that the new minister was candid and sincere, even smart, and demonstrated a willingness to examine the new media law carefully and run his ministry properly. Aung Kyi was aware of several problems under Kyaw Hsan including the key issue of censorship. He seemed intent to mix things up.

Unlike Kyaw Hsan—who was often likened to a Burmese “Comical Ali” in reference to the Iraqi propaganda chief during the 2003 US-led invasion—Aung Kyi is considerate and many hope that he will repair the fraught relationship between Naypyidaw and the media.

During his first week, Aung Kyi met former student activists who returned to visit Burma after having their names removed from the government’s blacklist, helping to cement his reputation as easily accessible unlike the previous hardliner.

As the former labor minister, Aung Kyi initiated several reformist policies including permitting the formation of independent worker organizations. He also reestablished a good relationship with the Geneva-based International labor Organization (ILO), a major step forward.

Burma has long been accused of rampant forced labor practices over the past decades of junta rule, and so Aung Kyi and the ILO agreed to form worker associations to allow people to submit complaints. In February 2007, he brokered a deal with the ILO to establish a new system of reporting allegations of forced labor.

As he has taken several bold moves in the Labor Ministry, many journalists hope he will follow suit in his new position and promote press freedom by introducing a liberal media law that meets international standards.

Having graduated from the military’s Officers Training School, Aung Kyi rose to the rank of major-general and subsequently became commandant of the same institution.

He steadily rose to become a government minister by gaining the confidence of retired junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his deputy Vice-Snr-Gen Maung Aye. In meetings with senior leaders, Aung Kyi was able to express opinions and demonstrate his knowledge while making a good impression, said a former minister who requested to remain anonymous.

Known to be mellow and a good listener, Aung Kyi became the regime’s official liaison to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in October 2007 following worldwide condemnation of the military’s brutal crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution” democracy uprising.

He has also published several books and articles on various subjects including conflict and leadership and has his own website, a rarity for government officials.

(Aung Zaw is the editor of the Irrawaddy, an independent news organization headquartered in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement with Irrawaddy.)