The chief minister of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, seen as a possible successor to Aung San Suu Kyi, told RFA on Monday that he will not contest elections in November because of a “health condition,” dismissing reports he had filed papers to run.
Phyo Min Thein had been nominated by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party to run again for his current Yangon regional parliamentary seat. He won the seat in the NLD’s landslide victory in the 2015 general elections, and serves as a local MP concurrently with his job as chief minister of Myanmar’s biggest city.
“I have informed the party that I can no longer serve as an MP [member of parliament] due to my health condition, so I will not contest in the upcoming election,” Phyo Min Thein told RFA’s Myanmar Service during an exclusive interview. He said local media reports saying that he had submitted a candidate application were false.
Phyo Min Thein, 51, who underwent heart surgery four years ago, did not elaborate on his health condition.
“I will keep contributing to the party’s works and nation-building efforts,” he added.
Phyo Min Thein emerged several years ago as a strong candidate to succeed State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi after impressing her and other top NLD officials with his willingness to take on tough infrastructure and transportation challenges in Yangon. The former Rangoon was the commercial and political hub of British Burma and the country’s capital until 2006.
A former political prisoner like Aung San Suu Kyi and many of her followers in a decades-long struggle against military rule, Phyo Min Thein began his ascent in 2012, when he joined the then-opposition NLD and won a seat representing Yangon in a by-election.
In October 2016, he was made a member of the NLD’s 12-person Central Executive Committee, the party’s top decision-making body, as part of a party restructuring and was quickly mentioned as a possible successor to Aung San Suu Kyi, who will be 75 on June 19.
The chief minister’s decision not to seek a seat in November came as he faced criticism, including from some NLD leaders, for flouting government-ordered restrictions on public gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Myanmar government on March 13 prohibited gatherings of more than four people and now has extended the restriction until June 30.
In May, the NLD rebuked Phyo Min Thein at a Central Executive Committee meeting in Naypyidaw for attending a Buddhist religious event at the riverside Botahtaung Pagoda in Yangon with members of his cabinet and other officials.
People across Myanmar, including a Christian pastor in Yangon and some of his followers, had been arrested and charged under the Natural Disaster Management Law for violating the ban, creating what many saw as a double standard. Some residents in Yangon filed complaints against Phyo Min Thein for violating the ban.
'No one above the law'
Thein Tun Oo, spokesman for the opposition Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), said the NLD’s immediate decision not to take action against Phyo Min Thein appeared hypocritical.
“There is no one above the law, [and] it is unfair to others who were detained for participating in gatherings like the Yangon chief minister did,” he told RFA. “The government should not ignore its members who break the law.”
Government spokesman Zaw Htay told reporters during an online press conference on May 30 that the President’s Office asked Yangon regional officials to explain Phyo Min Thein’s attendance at the gathering and said that central authorities would take action depending on the explanation.
The party has also admonished the minister.
“The party has warned him to follow the orders, requests, instructions and suggestions issued by the national-level Central Committee for Prevention, Control and Treatment of the Coronavirus Disease 2019,” said NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin.
On June 5, Yangon regional lawmakers from the USDP, the military, and other political parties moved to impeach Phyo Min Thein.
“We still have to wait for the review by the parliament,” said Sandar Min, an NLD lawmaker who represents Seikkyi Kanaungto township’s No. 1 constituency in the Yangon regional parliament.
“The speaker will review it to see if at least two-thirds of all regional MPs support the allegation that he is not suitable for the chief minister position,” she said.
Critics nevertheless have lambasted the Myanmar government for failing to take disciplinary action against Phyo Min Thein, who still is not off the hook yet for his actions.
“The government never allows any legal action to be taken against its officials,” said Myanmar human rights attorney Kyee Myint. “They must take action in this case, because charges cannot be made without its permission.”
Phyo Min Thein also was criticized when he sued Eleven Media for libel after an October 2018 report with a critical focus on Yangon government spending, charging that officials mismanaged public funds through business dealings by the chief minister. The report said that he had received a watch worth U.S. $100,000 from an individual in return for favorable treatment.
The chief minister denied the allegation, and the media group issued an apology, after the arrest of three journalists in the incident prompted complaints that the he was suppressing media freedom. The Eleven Media staffers were later released.
'As much as he can'
Phyo Min Thein made a name for himself by tacking the commercial hub’s crippling traffic congestion by overhauling the public bus and school bus networks, removing vendors from city streets, and working on a plan for significant urban infrastructure improvements.
He also traveled outside Myanmar at Aung San Suu Kyi’s behest to try to convince foreign companies to invest in Yangon.
But he has come under fire for some of his projects and decisions and faced criticism for what some say is a lack of economic development and investment in the city that drives the rest of the country.
Yangon residents, for instance, widely lambasted his changes to the bus system, citing increased fares, long delays, and irregular service.
Now, the Yangon regional parliament has rejected nearly U.S. $30 million in spending requests in the budget proposals of more than 20 government departments for the upcoming fiscal year 2020-21, deeming them excessive or inappropriate, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Nyein Chan Suu Kyi, an activist and resident of Yangon’s Sanchaung township, said that Phyo Min Thein's projects in Yangon have had mixed results.
“The Yangon Bus System and the school bus system are the chief minister’s most visible achievements,” she told RFA. “He is working as much as he can, but, yes, in some places he has made some mistakes.”
“The progress is not as good as it was supposed to be, but he has done everything he can, as much as he can,” she said. “[But] I’ve also noticed that he has taken some actions carelessly.”
Opposition USDP spokesman Nandar Hla Myint said, “The voters had high hopes for the Yangon chief minister, [but] in the past five years, his promises have been like building castles in the air.”
“There are many people who can revamp Yangon region,” he added. “Many of them are in NLD party. They just need to find the right person.”
Reported by Khin Maung Soe, Aung Theinkha, Thant Zin Oo, and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung, Maung Maung Nyo, and Khin Khin Ei. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.