RANGOON — A day after the removal of Information Minister Aung Kyi was announced, it emerged on Wednesday that President Thein Sein has nominated his spokesman and Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut as the new minister.
Deputy Health Minister Than Aung was nominated to succeed Health Minister Pe Thet Khin, whose removal was also announced on Tuesday.
In a letter to Parliament Wednesday afternoon, Thein Sein nominated Ye Htut for the minister’s post. Parliament will have to assess whether he meets criteria set out in the Constitution.
Ye Htut has actively engaged with the local and international media since his appointment as spokesman in 2013, often through posts on his Facebook page. A former lieutenant colonel in the Burma Army, he was transferred to the Information Ministry in 2005, became deputy information minister in 2012 and presidential spokesman in 2013.
As a spokesman he aggressively defended Thein Sein’s reformist administration, in particular its handling of the Arakan State crisis and a recent media clampdown, while he has also launched criticisms of his own at the media and government critics. Last month, he was forced to apologize for a photo-shopped image shared by his wife on Facebook, depicting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in an Islamic headscarf.
Ye Htut didn’t respond to emailed questions by The Irrawaddy about his nomination, but briefly explained why Aung Kyi and Dr Pe Thet Khin had stepped down.
“The president recognizes their efforts during their terms. On the other hand, he still needs to boost reforms in his remaining term to have good results. That’s why he made changes at union minister level,” Ye Htut said, adding that Thein Sein had found some shortcomings in the ministers’ performances.
Aung Kyi was a member of the former junta and appointed as Information Minister in August 2012, taking over from Kyaw Hsan, who was considered a hardliner. Draconian, junta-era media restrictions, such media censorship and a ban on daily newspapers, were lifted during Aung Kyi’s term as part of the sweeping political reforms introduced by Thein Sein after his nominally civilian government replaced a military regime in 2011.
His resignation comes at a time of a growing government pressure on local media that has resulted in a sharp rise in the threats and arrests of journalists in recent months.
At least seven journalists at the now-defunct Bi Mon Te Nay journal were arrested in the past weeks, while four journalists and the CEO of the closed down Unity journal were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labor for a report on an alleged chemical weapons factory of the Burma Army.
Special Branch Police have also questioned more than a dozen newspaper editors in recent weeks for vaguely defined investigations in the finances of news publications.
Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, said he believed that Aung Kyi was asked to resign as he had been a relatively inactive and that Thein Sein wanted to see a minister who exercises more hands-on control over Burma’s fledgling but active media.
“In his term we didn’t see anything special in [Aung Kyi’s] performance regarding the media. Cancelation of press censorship, for example, he implemented because it was ordered from above,” he said.
“The resignation probably signals that the government just wants to
change to a minister who can take more effective control of media. I think they want to appoint someone who could handle the media in a more systematic way,” Ya Myo Thein said.
Sithu Aung Myint, a senior journalist, said it was too early say what sort impact Ye Htut would have on the media in his position as minister, adding, however, that recent remarks by Ye Htut could indicate a tough government approach.
“In a recent interview with Voice of America, he sounded like he wanted to blame the media for what is happening with the media in Burma now. Many journalists here don’t like him,” he said, referring to Ye Htut’s remarks in defense of the 10 years’ sentencing of the Unity Trial journalists and describing Burmese media as immature and unprofessional.
Additional reporting by Htet Naing Zaw.