The appointment of Air Force chief General Myat Hein as the new minister for communications and information technology has sparked debate over the role of the military in government.
Under the 2008 constitution, General Myat Hein automatically became U Myat Hein when his appointment was confirmed by parliament on February 13. However, observers said the perception would linger that he is acting as a military representative in the government.
The move also attracted criticism in some quarters and appeared to buck the recent trend of more civilians being given both minister and deputy minister posts.
“This position is related to technical knowledge so it is much better if a civilian who has communications and information technology skills is appointed. Appointments should focus on technical criteria. Appointing a military person for this ministry is controversial,” said U Khun Htun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy.
Democratic Party (Myanmar) chairman U Thu Wai said that while members of the public are likely to be unhappy at the appointment, President U Thein Sein probably chose U Myat Hein because he knows him to be “reliable”.
“Yes, more civilians should be included in the government but people should not automatically assume that having military personnel in the government is bad,” he said.
Similarly, U Khin Maung Gyi, a former army officer who is now joint secretary of National Unity Party, said U Thein Sein may have felt that a person from the military was needed to shake up the telecoms ministry, which is currently the subject of a corruption investigation.
“Those army chiefs might be able to assist him, that is why he chose [U Myat Hein],” he said. “It depends on the situation; the president is going to use their experience as he sees fit.
“Anyway, whether they are from the army or civilians, if a person can serve the people properly then they are suitable for the post.”
Having only just taken over control of the ministry, it will be at least a few months before any indications about U Myat Hein’s performance emerge. U Khin Maung Swe, co-founder of the National Democratic Force (NDF), said he would be closely watched and perhaps more harshly judged than technocrats in the government.
The appointment of U Myat Hein came shortly after the first opposition MP, Dr Tin Shwe of the NDF, was brought into the government as deputy minister for hotels and tourism.
U Khin Maung Swe said the president should also give ethnic minority politicians or civil servants a chance to join the cabinet to show the government represents the entire union, and not just ethnic Burmese areas.
“It is rare to see ethnic ministers in government so they should also be appointed to ministerial posts. Some ethnic political are talking about that and the president should consider it,” he said.
Meanwhile, there were also mixed views in the telecommunications sector over the president’s decision.
U Ye Myat Thu, an executive committee from Myanmar Computer Federation, said he was not particularly concerned about the minister’s apparent lack of industry knowledge. He said he would be watching to see if the new minister could “manage rather than control” the sector.
“The [progress of the] ministry will depend upon his leadership and management skills,” he said.
However, blogger and IT technician Ko Zaw Zaw Myo Lwin said U Myat Hein may have picked up some IT knowledge in the air force. “Being the Air Force commander might mean he is fluent in some technical aspects. He might know the technical side but he won’t understand the business element. I think he will face some challenges but he could do well.”
Yangon Computer Professional Association chairman U Min Oo the new minister should be given time to settle into the post before being judged.
“I think it is too early to criticise the appointment. There might be a good reason why President U Thein Sein nominated U Myat Hein. The main thing is that he does his job free from corruption because that’s what needs to happen in a transparent and democratic government.”