Yangon: A Myanmar vice president with close ties to former junta chief Than Shwe has become a monk, officials said on Wednesday, in a move observers believe could strengthen the hand of the country's reformers.
   
Tin Aung Myint Oo, who is seen as one of the more reactionary members of the regime, entered a monastery on May 3, a Myanmar government official told, without giving details of how long he planned to stay there.
   
Another official confirmed he remained in the monkhood.
   
"He's still a monk. We didn't know about his resignation," he said. The government itself has remained silent on the matter.
   
Tin Aung Myint Oo's sudden absence has stoked speculation that he has stepped down, raising questions over whether he will be replaced by a more moderate figure.
   
Nicholas Farrelly, research fellow at the Australian National University, said Tin Aung Myint Oo, who is one of two vice presidents and seen as a close ally of former junta strongman Than Shwe, could still return to his post.
   
"But I doubt it -- I think he has resigned," he said.
   
If he has stepped down, the departure "suggests that reform-minded members of the current government are continuing to gain the ascendancy," Farrelly added.
   
President Thein Sein, a former general, has instigated a series of sweeping reforms since coming to power last year following the end of decades of direct military rule, prompting the West to begin to lift sanctions.
   
In the event of his resignation, Tin Aung Myint Oo's replacement would be chosen by unelected military personnel who hold one quarter of the seats in parliament, noted independent analyst Richard Horsey.
   
"If he has gone it will be a very good test of what the military feels about the reforms," he said.
   
Farrelly said the president would be likely to have some influence over the appointment, but added that the situation could provide observers with clues as to who among the military legislators and army figures "calls the shots".
   
Leading former junta figures were "clearly in the running" for the post, he said, but there was a chance Thein Sein "really shakes up political expectations" with a more radical choice.
   
"This is uncharted territory, to my mind," he added.

(Agencies)

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