Thursday, September 21, 2017

President-elect to explain ministry shake-up to MPs

President-Elect U Htin Kyaw is due to explain his ministry shake-up plan to parliament today as the incoming NLD administration signals its first intention to make a clear break with the military-backed government of U Thein Sein.

President-elect U Htin Kyaw (left) speaks to a National League for Democracy MP on March 17. Photo: EPAPresident-elect U Htin Kyaw (left) speaks to a National League for Democracy MP on March 17. Photo: EPA

The plan involves reducing the number of ministries to 21 from 36 and slashing the headcount of ministers and their deputies, in contrast with the outgoing USDP government which expanded posts and filled them mostly with ex-military personnel.

The intervention by U Htin Kyaw will be his first address to the combined chambers of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw since it overwhelmingly elected him president on March 15. But he still has 10 days before his official swearing in on March 30.

National League for Democracy MPs are eagerly anticipating the first speech of the president-elect, who was chosen by party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – barred by the constitution from holding the top post – for his personal loyalty over the years as trusted aide and confidant. The plan is expected to be confirmed with a vote.

Six MPs took part in a parliamentary debate on the plan on March 18 following its presentation by the Speaker a day earlier. U Htin Kyaw attended the debate but did not speak.

Reorganisation of the ministries would help prevent “departmental buck-passing”, said U J Yaw Wu of the National Unity Party.

U Ba Shein of the Arakan National Party, the largest ethnic minority party which has said it would act in opposition to the NLD, backed the plan. But he also urged that ministry staff be reassured that they would not lose their jobs through the mergers.

The NLD’s U Naing Htoo Aung said unnecessary costs had to be cut, echoing the official party line that the measures are intended to tackle the gaping budget deficit. He also addressed the importance of responsibility and accountability in forming the new government which is to start work on April 1.

Too many departments and ministries in the past had wasted time, he said.

“If the number of ministries is smaller, the president could directly manage the accountability of his ministers better than before,” he said, while endorsing the plan to slash the number of ministers in the President’s Office from six to one.

But as a cost-cutting exercise the reduction in ministries is more cosmetic than substantive – at least for the time being. The measures will cut less than US$2 million in government salaries over the course of a year, although the minister and deputy minister posts also come with a range of allowances and other perks.

The NLD has been quick to assure civil servants that its plan will not result in job cuts. “Abolished” ministries will be subsumed into other areas of the government, while those whose jobs are deemed unnecessary will be retrained and reassigned.

Nevertheless, many civil servants – most whom earn the equivalent of just a few hundred dollars a month – remain worried about their futures.

“I am concerned about losing our jobs when we heard that our ministry is not included in the list. Nowadays it is difficult to get work. Also civil servants stay in staff housing, so we are worried about our living places,” said U Swe Tint, director of the Ministry of Co-operatives, which is to become part of the Ministry of Commerce.

Junior civil servants with no experience of changes of government are also worried for their future, said U Moe Zaw, a deputy staff officer at the Ministry of Agricultural and Irrigation, which will merge with the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development. “The senior staffers don’t have too many worries, but junior employees are worried … If they understand that civil servants will move on and carry out the policies of the new government then they don’t need to be worried for their future,” he said.

But outside parliament there has been criticism too, with questions raised over why some ministries, such as Sport, lost their ministerial status, while others, like Hotels and Tourism, have survived.

“Myanmar previously coined the slogan claiming ‘Myanmar Sports – The world to conquer’. Under the government of U Thein Sein, Myanmar football was seen as a success to some extent along with hosting the SEA Games. Now I don’t know how it will keep going,” said U Aung Naing Oo, an organiser of youth games in Nay Pyi Taw’s Pyinmana township.

Former Amyotha Hluttaw MP U Phone Myint Aung asked why Hotels and Tourism justified having a ministry when it did not own any hotels itself to manage through its departments.

U Htun Htun Hein, a NLD central executive committee member, said civil servants in the three soon-to-disappear ministries of Sport, Cooperatives, and Science and Technology would work under other ministries.

“For example, the Ministry of Sport will become part of the Ministry of Health or Education as a department. There is no need for staff to worry about losing their jobs,” he said.

Reflecting his confidence either in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or the historic powers of patronage, one employee in the minister’s office of the Ministry of Cooperatives said he was afraid of giving his name to a reporter but not afraid of losing his job.

“I have no worries. I believe that our superiors will manage jobs for us,” he said.

Additional reporting by Lun Min Mang, translation by Thiri Min Htun