Senior NLD Member Chides Reporter for Probing Party Plans

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 6 January 2016

RANGOON — Burma’s incoming leadership has already made strides in alienating the fourth estate, drawing sharp criticism from journalists who claim Aung San Suu Kyi’s winning party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is too opaque with the country’s ardent media.

In the party’s latest brush with the press, central committee member Win Htein lashed out at a reporter during an interview with Radio Free Asia that aired on Tuesday. At the tail end of the two-minute clip, as the reporter thanked the veteran party member for his participation, Win Htein barked with annoyance.

“Don’t thank me, think seriously before you ask me questions,” he said, after an exchange focused largely on the NLD’s reluctance to reveal its presidential picks.

The party won a majority of both houses of Parliament in a historic November election, granting it the power to nominate two candidates—one will be elected as president while the other will share the vice presidency with a military-backed nominee. The party’s chairwoman, Suu Kyi, is ineligible due to a clause disqualifying citizens with a foreign spouse or children.

Suu Kyi has repeatedly stated that she will ultimately outrank whoever the party puts forth, but has as yet given no indication of who that might be. Incessant efforts by journalists to inform the public of who is being considered as head of state are “unnecessary,” Win Htein said in defense of the party’s secrecy.

“We don’t want to mess this up just for your five- or 10-minute media reports. It took 27 or 28 years and the sacrifice of many lives to have a government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said, explaining impatiently that the transition period will require secrecy so as not to alarm the outgoing military-backed party.

The comments went viral on social media, prompting criticism of the NLD’s respect for the press. Commentators chimed in that “there are no stupid questions in journalism.”

Htein Lin, an artist known for his work on political prisoners—himself formerly among them—wrote on his Facebook page that the incoming government’s attitude toward the press was “alarming.”

“The media is just doing their job,” he said, “He should not call this ‘unnecessary,’ it’s just not the right time [to ask those questions].”

Other users suggested that the party needed to professionalize its media relations. One commented that because politicians are judged by their public remarks, the NLD “urgently needs a proper PR person.”

The NLD, which has long been the opposition party in a country ruled by a brutal military regime and its civilianized successor, has enjoyed a relatively friendly relationship with the press for decades. As it prepares to assume power, however, that rapport has suffered. Since securing a major electoral victory late last year, the party and its leader have been tight-lipped about its plans and who its leadership has been meeting, leaving the press to rely on scant public statements instead of NLD officials.

MP-elects have also been advised not to engage the media to avoid making comments that could be misconstrued, Win Htein said during Tuesday’s interview, reminding listeners of an incident following the NLD’s first landslide victory in a 1990 election, later nullified by the generals.

Kyi Maung, then-vice chairman of the party, was asked whether the NLD government would prosecute generals who had been accused of war crimes and other offenses. His answer—while not exactly forthright—was perceived as a threat by Maj-Gen Khin Nyunt, then a powerful intelligence agent who would later become prime minister before eventually falling out of favor. Shortly after Kyi Maung’s comments, Khin Nyunt ordered the arrest of an estimated 200 NLD members. The transfer of power never took place.

Recalling the ill-fated episode, Win Htein sent a warning to the media, telling RFA that, “we have suffered enough.”

Some of Burma’s most seasoned journalists offered a nuanced approach to today’s predicament of balancing caution with transparency. Thiha Saw, executive director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute and one of the most prolific figures in the country’s print media, said the party should cultivate a more respectful rapport with the press, despite the need for secrecy.

“I think they’re being too sensitive right now, as this is the transition period; they probably don’t want to make any mistakes that would affect the transfer of power,” he told The Irrawaddy. “Everyone has the right to answer a question or not, but [Win Htein’s remarks] make it seem as though journalists are not rational thinkers.”

Additional reporting contributed by Kyaw Hsu Mon.