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Myanmar junta keeps energy sector under military control with appointment of new ministers

Two major generals chosen more for their loyalty to regime leader Min Aung Hlaing than for their competence are unlikely to bring needed changes to the key sector

As part of a reshuffle of key cabinet posts following its extension of emergency rule earlier this month, Myanmar’s military junta has named two major generals to head its ministries of energy and electric power.

Nyan Tun, a retired major general who served as director of the military’s engineering office, has been appointed minister of electric power, and Ko Ko Lwin, who was deputy chief of defence industries until the reshuffle, is now minister of energy. (The two ministries were originally one until they were separated by the regime in May of last year.)

Nyan Tun and Ko Ko Lwin replace fellow military officers Thaung Han and Myo Myint Oo, respectively, in keeping with the junta’s practice of entrusting all vital positions to senior armed forces personnel.

Both men entered the military by joining the Officer Training School (OTS) after completing degrees in engineering at the Yangon Technology University—Nyan Tun as a member of OTS Intake 58 and Ko Ko Lwin as a member of OTS Intake 71.

Another thing they have in common is a lack of relevant experience for their current positions. Neither man has had any previous involvement in the energy sector, suggesting that their chief qualification for their new roles is their trustworthiness in the eyes of junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

“This means that they plan to tighten control over the ministries,” said a former director from the Ministry of Electricity who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“They are more powerful generals, and closer to the senior general. This seems to be the pattern right now—the junta is paying more attention to choosing people it can trust, rather than those who can get the job done,” he added.

Ties to top generals

As the older of the two, Nyan Tun also has close ties to former junta strongman Than Shwe, signalling a desire to maintain continuity between past and present dictatorships.

Nyan Tun, who is in his 70s, was actively involved in the construction of Naypyitaw, the city that Than Shwe built two decades ago to replace Yangon as Myanmar’s capital. But their association goes back to even earlier in their careers, according to a former military officer who knew Nyan Tun when they were both in active service.

“He was a lieutenant when he met Than Shwe on the front line. Than Shwe was a light infantry division commander at the time. Than Shwe was fond of him, so when he became commander-in-chief, U Nyan Tun got more promotions,” said the former officer.

Nyan Tun is seen at a junta meeting in August (Facebook)

Nyan Tun was a major general by the time he played a leading role in building the Yangon-Naypyitaw highway. Officially opened in March 2009, it has since been known as the “highway of death” due to its large number of traffic fatalities.

Ko Ko Lwin is regarded as being closer to Min Aung Hlaing. He has often been seen together with the junta supremo, most recently during a trip to Ayeyarwady Region last week. On August 12, he was among a handful of ministers who joined Min Aung Hlaing at the opening ceremony for a paper mill in the town of Thabaung that had previously been shut down by the ousted ruling party, the National League for Democracy. He was also one of the few generals who met with the junta leader during a tour in June.

Both Nyan Tun and Ko Ko Lwin have also been involved in the construction of a giant Buddha image in Naypyitaw—a project begun by Min Aung Hlaing before he seized power two and a half years ago. Ko Ko Lwin has been especially active in this massive undertaking, support for which has come to be seen as a major test of fealty to Ming Aung Hlaing’s regime.

Poor performance

It is no real mystery why Myo Myint Oo, Ko Ko Lwin’s predecessor, lost his job. In early July, Myanmar Now revealed that the Ministry of Energy had created bogus bank accounts in an effort to circumvent sanctions and access some US$500 million paid to the regime-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. Days later, the junta raided the enterprise’s head office in Naypyitaw to find out who leaked evidence of the scheme, arresting more than a dozen employees, including two deputy directors.

It is less obvious why Thaung Han had to be replaced, but it may have had something to do with growing dissatisfaction among business leaders with Myanamr’s perennial lack of electricity. Thaung Han was actually the second minister for electrical power since the coup, making Nyan Tun the third to hold the post.

Ko Ko Lwin (right) is seen with Min Aung Hlaing at the opening ceremony for the Thabaung paper mill on August 12 (MRTV) 

During his tenure, Thaung Han travelled to Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates to invite investment in Myanmar’s energy sector. However, apart from signing some deals aimed at increasing the use of wind-generated energy, there was no significant development in the sector under his watch.

Speaking earlier this month, Min Aung Hlaing admitted that the lack of electricity is still a huge challenge for the country, which he said cannot meet even 50% of its needs.

According to the former Energy Ministry director who spoke to Myanmar Now, simply putting a new person in charge is not likely to make any significant difference. The real issue, he said, is the regime’s own unwieldy way of doing business.

“Power companies are paid only in kyat for the electricity that they sell. There are also a lot of steps they have to go through to get the approval of various ministry offices. And if they need to import anything, that also requires expensive permits. Why would anyone want to invest here under these circumstances?” he said.

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