Has anybody seen Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein? I repeat, has anybody seen U Phyo Min Thein?
For five days, a fire has been raging at a landfill in Yangon’s Hlaing Thaya Township, one of the outermost towns to the city’s west across the Hlaing River, spreading noxious smoke across the city. Since Saturday, firefighters have been trying to put out the fire but in vain. On Tuesday night, even residents in the downtown area suffered from the smoke produced by the fire smoldering in the 17-year-old garbage dump site, raising public health concerns.
Since Monday, the landfill fire attracted a wide range of media coverage. Local newspapers’ front pages were splashed with pictures of firemen struggling to control the fire on the 100-acre dump site with smoldering garbage and headlines about residents being rushed to the hospital after inhaling the smoke. When the smoke hit downtown Yangon last night, the Ministry of Health and Sports, 200 miles away in Naypyitaw, announced a health warning and precautionary measures against the smoke. But the Yangon regional government was still silent. People wondered: “Where was U Phyo Min Thein, the head of the Yangon government? What was he doing?”
Well, for those questions, the answer in short was— the chief minister was busy! On Tuesday afternoon when 16 people had been admitted to Hlaing Thaya General Hospital after inhaling smoke, U Phyo Min Thein was leading a ceremony, accompanied by 4,500 monks, to bring back the sacred hair relic of Buddha from the Shwedagon Pagoda to its original place in Botahtaung Pagoda. When the panic-stricken downtown residents wondered how to cope with the smoke that night, the chief minister – who recently claimed that he would be the household leader if Yangon was considered a household – was peacefully attending Dhamma talks as a celebration of the success of the ceremony. It is noticeable that the chief minister put much of his energy and time as well as the government’s resources into the relic-related event since early this month.
In a nutshell, the chief minister is irresponsible. As the fire was getting serious earlier this week, his government failed to make any city-wide warning or alert regarding the smoke for the sake of public health, especially for the elderly and children. He didn’t bother to let the people know how his government was tackling the problem or what still needed to be done. He failed to show up at the landfill to provide moral support to firefighters who have been extinguishing the fire day in and day out. In contrast, when crony Tay Za-owned Kandawgyi Palace hotel was on fire in October last year, U Phyo Min Thein personally visited the site even very early in the morning.
The Fire Services Department has earned popular praise for its hard work to extinguish the fire while the Yangon government attracted criticism for its inaction. People’s hearts go out to the firemen who have been struggling to put out the fire under the intense heat for days. Well-wishers rushed in with food, electrolyte replacements and medicine for firefighters when the chief minister failed to appear. It’s the latest example that in Myanmar if you care about people, they care about you too.
But on Tuesday night, U Phyo Min Thein couldn’t turn a blind eye to the issue when State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi intervened, offering the assistance of the Union government. Alarmed, the chief minister called the first high-level meeting on the issue in the middle of the night, to brainstorm how to solve the problem. It showed clearly that the chief minister was not proactive. But he didn’t forget to post the meeting pictures on his Facebook, letting people know ‘Hey, I’m on it now!’ But it was already too late.
In short, the landfill fire was a test for the chief minister’s leadership in Yangon. Sadly, he failed. Like it or not, U Phyo Min Thein, the self-acclaimed household leader of Yangon, has seriously disappointed millions of the city’s residents.