Deputy minister axed
The first major cabinet shake-up since President U Htin Kyaw’s administration took power has prompted questions about the constitutionally mandated divide between party politics and government affairs.
THE president has axed a deputy minister, the first cabinet termination to occur since the National League for Democracy-led government took office at the end of March.
The dismissal, made without official explanation, has raised eyebrows, especially over constitutionally enshrined divisions between party politics and government affairs. The ousted official’s own account has shed light on the frustrating experience of a well-intentioned bureaucrat mired in red tape amid the democratically elected administration’s bid to liberalise governance.
The president announced the termination of deputy minister for agriculture, livestock and irrigation U Tun Win on November 18. No specific reason was given, but the announcement noted the decision was made in line with section 235 of the constitution. According to sub-section (c), the president can terminate any Union minister or deputy minister who fails to effectively fulfill or comply with their responsibilities.
Speaking to reporters in Nay Pyi Taw over the weekend, U Tun Win railed against his firing. The ex-deputy said he and his minister had serious disagreements about agriculture policies and the need to fast-track widespread changes to the sector.
One of their feuds involved water distribution from the Yesin dam in Pyinmana township to support paddy growing. Another was prompted by the suggestion of creating fish farms in dams. And they also fought over a river pump system proposed in the Ayeyarwaddy delta to produce more crops, said U Tun Win, who before his ministerial appointment was an agriculture expert working for the Myanmar Rice Industry Association.
“He said [the proposals] were impossible. But I refused to accept this,” said U Tun Win.
Monthly meetings became heated sparring sessions.
“I angrily told the minister, ‘You have four months’ experience in the agriculture sector, but I have over 40 years’ experience,’” U Tun Win said. “It is time for the new government to deliver on its promises of change for the sake of farmers and jobless people who have suffered for so long.”
The heated exchanges appear to have grated on Minister U Aung Thu. Despite offering an apology, U Tun Win believes the outbursts contributed to his sacking.
And then there was the contentious issue of state-owned gardens in Heho, Shan State.
Under the junta, it was not uncommon for state-owned land to be parcelled off to private investors with 50-year contracts. Heho’s gardens were among the plots outsourced to a private company.
U Tun Win proposed taking back state-owned land, especially the plots that had not been utilised for years. But the agriculture minister rejected the suggestion, adding that it was a “sensitive issue”.
Acting without the support or knowledge of his boss, U Tun Win requested the company involved in the Heho gardens voluntarily return the land. The manager allegedly refused as the company had invested US$8 million in the plots.
One week later, NLD senior members lead by central executive committee member U Win Htein visited U Tun Win at his home.
“When I told them I defended the garden for the sake of country, they left immediately,” U Tun Win said.
The following week, the deputy minister was asked to come to Sebin guest house in Nay Pyi Taw, the civil servants’ quarters. U Tun Win said he was met by U Myo Aung, the Nay Pyi Taw Council chair, and U Win Htein, and they proceeded to ask for his resignation.
“I refused to resign as they were not giving me any reason to do so … I received two phone calls [from U Win Htein]. When I asked him what was wrong with my service, he did not say anything. He just repeated the demand that I resign,” U Tun Win said. He added that he believed he had carried out his responsibilities properly, keeping in mind the needs of the country and the people.
On November 17, an official from the President’s Office gave U Tun Win an ultimatum: resign, or be fired for “failure to cooperate”. U Tun Win said he was told if he resigned as requested he would be guaranteed a pension and other benefits available to civil servants. If he refused, he would get nothing.
“I told him I did not come [to Nay Pyi Taw] for the pension. I came to work for the truth,” U Tun Win said.
The next morning’s announcement of the termination order nevertheless surprised U Tun Win.
“I am wondering whether democracy has fallen silent in our country, and whether the right side is losing,” U Tun Win said, adding that he was never presented with a description of his wrongdoings, nor a chance to defend his work.
The public announcement spurred concern among the public and among MPs who questioned the way the firing was handled, and why senior party members were carrying out government reprimands.
Over the weekend, NLD MP Daw Khin Moh Moh Aung sent an open letter to President U Htin Kyaw calling on him to share the reasons for the dismissal.
However, President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay told The Myanmar Times there are no plan to release further information about the firing.
“The government must reshuffle ministers or deputy ministers due to various reasons. We have no obligation to release more information about it because it is related with internal government affairs, and we must respect the dignity of the [terminated] person,” he said.
When asked why the NLD’s party members were intervening in government affairs, U Zaw Htay said he could not answer on behalf of the ruling party.
Yesterday, The Myanmar Times visited Sebin guest house to ask for U Win Htein’s side of the story. He refused to comment on the case, alleging he had “nothing to say”.
U Soe Tun, deputy chair of the Myanmar Rice Federation, said, “I was so sad for Dr Tun Win, but I don’t want to give any comment about it, as I don’t know exactly what happened.”
Independent political analyst U Yan Myo Thein criticised the NLD members’ involvement in the deputy minister’s canning, and said it raised questions about democratic practices.
“The constitution is very clear that political parties must not be involved in government affairs. I think the NLD and its leader should respect the constitution. Also, the party should establish a clear line between party affairs, and government business, to prevent such problems from arising again in the future,” he said.
U Yan Myo Thein also said the government should be more transparent about cabinet shake-ups than its predecessor. “We understand the previous government did not release any information about the termination of ministers, or share the changes in a transparent way. But we want to change that. That’s why people voted for the NLD, so that things wouldn’t follow the same methods,” he added.
– Additional reporting by Htoo Thant