News this week that Myanmar president Thein Sein had reshuffled his cabinet, removing several key ministers, seems to suggest that Thein Sein is for real, that he is indeed committed to the long-term economic and political reforms the country desperately needs. All of the appointments to the posts in the president’s office are reformers and at the same time he seems to have demoted hard-liners in this reshuffle. Thein Sein’s moves, and his commitment, do not mean that Myanmar might not regress; just because he is committed to reform, the military still remains a critical player, and as we have seen in other countries in the region, such as Thailand, if democratization coincides with weak growth or the alienation of critical interest groups (i.e., the Thai upper class), these interest groups can wind up turning against the democratic process altogether.
But even despite these obstacles, the reshuffle is impressive, and suggests that the president strongly believes he not only enjoys public support but also is in a strong enough position with the military and other interest groups to sideline hard-liners from his government. Most notably, Kyaw Hsan, who was replaced as Information Minister, will not be missed by any Burmese journalists; he was decidedly old school, convinced that the press should serve as an organ of the state. His removal, and being given a less important post (as Cooperatives Minister), was one of the top talking points many reformist journalists from inside and outside Myanmar have brought up with close aides to Thein Sein. Yet Kyaw Hsan had support among some of the harder-liners, so Thein Sein must have decided his position was consolidated enough to bump Kyaw Hsan, more consolidated than at any time in the past year, since reformers have been complaining about Kyaw Hsan for a long time. In the wake of also removing Tin Aung Myint Oo as one of the vice presidents, Thein Sein seems to be going from strength to strength. Will he now have the strength to take on military privilege, and to seriously grapple with ethnic divides?