Commentary

Apparently, Myanmar Govt’s COVID-19 Rules Don’t Apply to Yangon Chief Minister

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 27 May 2020

He’s done it again!

Yes, Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein has managed to upset the people of Yangon again. This time by violating his own government’s COVID-19 ban on mass gatherings, even as regional authorities jail others who have committed the same offense.

Since taking office as the head of the Yangon regional government in 2016, Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein has never missed an opportunity to disappoint residents of the region, who have endured one case of mismanagement after another, including his intervention in the Yangon parliament’s budget deliberation process last year and his delayed response to a landfill fire that threatened the health of city residents in 2018.

The latest incident occurred over the weekend when he, his wife, members of his cabinet and other officials descended on the riverside Botahtaung Pagoda in Yangon to attend a Buddhist religious event. It included the launch of a raft carrying a statue of Shin Upagote—a fabled Buddhist monk who is believed to live on the high seas and protect worshippers from floods and storms—on the coast nearby, as well as the relocation of a number of Buddha idols and a life-sized statue of Mya Nan New, a spirit (or “Nat”) known for granting the wishes of those who whisper in her ears, so that some maintenance work could be done. (The spirit is particularly popular among Thai tourists, by the way.)

As curious onlookers joined the invited attendees, the number of people at the assembly swelled into the dozens, visibly breaching an order by the Myanmar President’s Office banning mass gatherings, which remains in effect until the end of this month, and defying the Health Ministry’s request that citizens not organize public events and avoid gathering in groups of more than four people. Both restrictions are aimed at curbing the spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has hit U Phyo Min Thein’s Yangon Region harder than any other part of Myanmar so far.

Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein attends a religious event on the weekend. The event prompted public criticism that attendees breached the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. / Yangon Region government

Unsurprisingly, the chief minister-led gathering raised not only public health concerns but also questions about whether U Phyo Min Thein was undermining his government’s own authority. It doesn’t help his case that two pastors are now behind bars and 12 Muslims are serving three-month prison terms for holding religious gatherings—essentially the same offense the Yangon’s chief minister committed on the weekend.

It has also generated criticism among members of the ruling National League for Democracy, on whose Central Executive Committee U Phyo Min Thein sits. Monywa Aung Shin, the party’s central information officer, told The Irrawaddy: “If you fail to follow a directive, you are violating it.”

Now, people are wondering aloud if a double standard is being applied when it comes to the President Office’s ban on mass gatherings, or if the chief minister is above the law, given that other violators have been punished while he goes untouched, potentially undermining harmony among Myanmar people of different faiths.

Some with quick tempers took the issue personally, demanding in comments posted on Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s official Facebook account that action be taken against the chief minister.

Yangon Mayor U Maung Maung Soe (left) attends a religious event on the weekend that prompted public criticism that attendees breached the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. / Yangon Region government

Aware of the sensitivity of the issue, the chief minister hurriedly made himself available to the media, insisting he hadn’t broken any laws in a rambling reply to reporters that featured much beating around the bush. For anyone who has seen the photos of the event that went viral on Facebook, his claims are hard to swallow.

Another question prompted by the weekend event is, “Why would he do this during the coronavirus outbreak?” Please note that the event was held just seven days shy of the ban’s expiry. Why was U Phyo Min Thein in such a hurry? He told the media that now is a good time for maintenance work, as the pagoda is closed to visitors. However, some skeptical souls wonder if it was an act of Yadaya—Brahman rituals enacted to prevent misfortune. Guided by astrologers, they are popular in Myanmar among people of all walks of life, from those in power to the poor. These skeptics reason that the event had to be performed at a precise date and time. (The raft was launched at 7 in the morning.) They also point out that the cyclone season is underway, with Yangon still reeling from the effects of COVID-19. Only U Phyo Min Thein, and possibly his wife, know the answer.

Whatever the case, the chief minister’s actions over the weekend were unacceptable. They have put the Union government in an awkward position, as its orders have been undermined by a senior official. Due to U Phyo Min Thein’s shortsightedness, Myanmar will have to pay the price internationally by being accused of religious discrimination.

Yangon Region Social Affairs Minister U Naing Ngan Lin attends a religious event on the weekend. The event prompted public criticism that attendees breached the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. / Yangon Region government

Adding to the government’s dismay, this is not the first time U Phyo Min Thein has embarrassed the government during the COVID-19 crisis. When the government distributed food rations to the poor last month, he went out into the narrow streets of Yangon’s slums, handing out aid to people with barely a thought for social distancing guidelines. It embarrassed the country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, prompting her to say on Facebook that, “There has been some criticism for failures to follow COVID prevention guidelines. People at the management level have to take great care not to repeat this. No one (including chief ministers) is immune to COVID.”

More than a month later, he has upset her again.

This time, the Yangon chief minister’s actions over the weekend test the credibility of what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has long preached: the importance of the rule of law and equality before the law.

It’ll be interesting to see how she responds this time.

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