Over the past few months President Thein Sein has gone out on a limb to appear PR-savvy, media-friendly and all-inclusive.
Now his office has gone one step further in opening an online postbox, allowing ordinary citizens to vent their opinions, criticize the government, ask questions, make appeals, and even accuse officials of bribery and corruption.
The interactive move began on Friday and the official website has already received more than 50 messages, according to the director-general of the President’s Office, Maj Zaw Htay, who himself posted comments on Facebook encouraging a public response.
Zaw Htay noted, however, that the majority of the messages received to date had been sent anonymously despite the requirement for all users to list their names, email addresses, phone numbers, ID card numbers and places of residence—an indication, perhaps, that an air of distrust still pervades Burmese cyberspace.
Zaw Htay also stated on his page that the President welcomes the public’s suggestions about reform, that they should express their concerns, and report cases of corruption, abuse of power or other complaints.
Over the past year since Thein Sein took power, a culture of submitting written letters of complaint and petitions to the President’s Office has become popular culture in Burma, especially among farmers who claim their lands have been seized, factory workers and other low-paid laborers, and victims of corrupt administrators.
The most popular case was overwhelmingly the outpouring of opposition to the construction of the Myitsone Dam project at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River. The campaign was ultimately proved successful a year ago when the president ordered a postponement of the project.
“The public can never know whether their letters of complaint are taken seriously,” said the general-secretary No. 1 of the Unity and Diversity Party (UDP), Aung Myo Oo, who met with Thein Sein in August at his office in Naypyidaw.
Aung Myo Oo said he and his party colleagues are also working to help farmers with land issues. UDP leader Nay Myo Wai is currently facing trial after being sued by the Zaykabar Company for defamation. The company, owned by parliamentarian Khin Shwe, allegedly confiscated farmland in Rangoon’s Mingaladon Township.
Aung Myo Oo said the president appears to be taking the matter of public affairs seriously and had raised the issue of letters of complaint during their meeting.
Observers have roundly applauded the president for his reformist moves, and say he is moving with the times. Until now, most commentators say, it has been widely perceived among the public that any disputes or social issues are not dealt with seriously unless they are publicized in the media.
President Thein Sein last week appointed four new ministers to the President’s Office, despite some objections by MPs at the recent parliamentary session which ended on Friday. The president said these four new ministers will help improve efficiency within the administration as it deals with issues of reform and the peace process.
Pe Myint, the editor of the weekly People’s Age journal based in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy that “The government should create a mechanism to collaborate with the representatives of abused people in order to solve their problems.”
Maung Lwin, a farmer at the Bawnetgyi village in the Pegu region told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the township authorities have just begun an investigation into their letter of complaint about a corrupt village administrator. “We submitted the letter two weeks ago and now all 54 villagers have been summoned by the Pegu township administrator to testify about the village administrator’s wrongdoing,” he said.
Nay Win, a resident of Pegu, said this incident marks the first time he has heard of the authorities taking public action against one of their own.
Thein Sein welcomed all the new ministers on Monday, referring to them as public servants who are to “take the initiative without awaiting directives from their superiors or for criticism of the media to shape the government response.”
But Burma still lacks “information-transparency,” said Pe Myint. “The government should regularly release information by holding press conferences on each relevant sector,” he said.