The abrupt exit of one of Myanmar’s leading reformist ministers from the helm of the government’s powerful investment commission has raised fresh questions about President Thein Sein’s ambitious reform agenda and unsettled investors.
U Soe Thane, a key figure in a small group of so-called “super ministers” in the president’s office, will be replaced as chairman of the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) by the finance minister, Win Shein.
Government officials confirmed the change on Wednesday, ahead of an announcement.
Mr Soe Thane, however, remains as minister in overall charge of economic matters, where he is seen as a key figure in deciding crucial contracts such as the current bid by more than 12 foreign companies for two national telecommunications licences.
His successor at the commission, Mr Win Shein will retain his finance portfolio, which he gained last year. Two other ministers – for railways and for forestry and environment, both seen as reformers close to Mr Soe Thane – have been appointed to the 16-member MIC. The commission, which also comprises business figures and bureaucrats, is the key body that approves foreign investment projects and joint venture proposals.
The move follows complaints in parliament about the MIC’s lack of transparency and proposals by some MPs to investigate the commission’s procedures for approving foreign investment projects.
It also highlights criticism from some political and business circles of Mr Soe Thane’s growing influence in government – particularly among conservative elements of the government who warn that reforms are proceeding too quickly. But insiders say Mr Soe Thane’s direct style and his numerous challenges to established power centres in business and government has made him many enemies.
“It was his choice – he requested the president appoint a new chairman so he could more effectively perform other important duties,” said Kyaw Ying Hlaing, an adviser to Mr Soe Thane. “But he will continue overseeing economic affairs as well as the MIC’s activities in his ministerial role – he remains as vibrant and influential as before,” he added.
A former commander-in-chief of the navy and a minister of industry under the previous military regime, Mr Soe Thane is a long-time confidante and adviser to Mr Thein Sein, a former army general. Since Mr Thein Sein came to power in early 2011, Mr Soe Thane has steadily increased his responsibilities – often travelling abroad to represent the president.
Apart from chairing the investment commission, he also oversees committees in charge of planning special economic zones and developing Yangon. Among other roles he is also a leading member of the president’s anti-corruption committee and a committee to review political prisoner cases. He privately told some diplomats last week that more political prisoners would soon be freed.
Western diplomats widely see Mr Soe Thane as a valuable driver of Myanmar’s rapid reforms and note his critical role in pushing through the new foreign investment law as well as a range of economic, labour and social reforms.
“He is decisive, he gets things done, he often cuts through red tape and has a genuine commitment to reform – all traits that inevitably make enemies in this intense transition period,” said a Yangon-based diplomat.
Given Mr Soe Thane’s role as an interface with foreign investors, “more clarity about these changes – and how they affect the review and approval process for projects – would be very welcome”, said Romain Caillaud, managing partner at Vriens & Partners, a Yangon-based consultant.
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