RANGOON — Burma’s minister of agriculture and irrigation told ministry staff members to stay away from politics just one day before the country’s biggest opposition party launched a signature campaign for constitutional amendments.
The minister made the directive during a meeting in Naypyidaw on Monday, before the National League for Democracy (NLD) began collecting signatures on Tuesday to support charter reform, according to an official from the ministry’s Department of Agriculture.
“He said government staff must not participate in political movements, public speeches or campaigns, nor can they give opinions or vote in such campaigns,” the official told The Irrawaddy on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said the minister warned staff members that anyone who participated in political movements would do so at their own risk.
The next day, the ministry’s director-general allegedly issued the same warning in a letter, while also calling staff members on the telephone to reinforce the message, the official from the Department of Agriculture said.
The head of an agricultural training school run by the ministry also made a similar warning to staff, according to a letter with his signature which was posted on Facebook. In the letter, he urged ministry staff not to participate in public polls by any political party, while suggesting there could be consequences for doing so.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, an activist group, have teamed up to collect signatures from hundreds of supporters across the country in support of constitutional reform.
Civil servants have been banned from participating in politics since the former military regime. Some civil servants today complain that continuing restrictions on their participation indicate there has been little change under President Thein Sein’s government.
“They never want to change and they are afraid of change. We, civil servants are at their [the government’s] mercy, and that’s why they always want to control us,” said a medical practitioner who currently works at Yangon General Hospital in Rangoon. “Whether there’s a warning or not, we are afraid.”
She added, “My friends, my family and I already signed the petition. I believe civil servants need to serve the country, and signing the petition is a different way to serve the country apart from our regular duties.”