The chief minister of Myanmar’s Mandalay division has been charged with negligence over a fire that broke out at his home in a rare legal challenge of a top ranking official, reflecting reforms following decades of military rule.
But reports said the local authorities took action against Ye Myint only after coming under public criticism.
Ye Myint’s home was set alight on April 19 by an overheated surge protector connected to an air conditioning unit, according to the fire department in Aung Myay Thar San township where the residence is located.
Authorities brought charges against the minister on April 22 as the head of the household and the person most responsible for the fire, Zaw Min Tun, a local police officer told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday.
“[Ye Myint] was charged under Article 285 [of the Penal Code], for negligence in a fire, by Ko Ko Lat, a police officer from the Aung Myay Thar San township police station,” he said.
When asked why it had taken three days to bring charges against the chief minister and whether police had to first consult with Myanmar’s Home Affairs Ministry before doing so, Zaw Min Tun said he did not know.
But he said that under Article 285, Ye Myint faced a punishment of “imprisonment and a fine,” if convicted.
Local lawyer Thein Than Oo told RFA Thursday that charging such a high-ranking official was an unprecedented move that was unlikely to have occurred just years earlier, when Myanmar was ruled by the former military junta.
“This is a charge for someone who harms others due to negligence in a fire and could carry a punishment of up to three years imprisonment and a fine,” he said.
“I didn’t think the police would be brave enough to sue a divisional chief minister. I have never seen such a thing before, but I think the police did it because the division chief minister had instructed them to act according to the law.”
The Myanmar Times quoted a local lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying that Ye Myint’s sentence was hard to predict, adding that there is plenty of opportunity for a judge to use their discretion.
“The penalty [for negligence] is not related to the amount of damage [caused by a fire]. It is dependent on the judge’s decision,” the lawyer told the paper.
Police estimated the damage to part of Ye Myint’s two-story home at around 1.1 million kyats (U.S. $1,150), according to the Times.
Authorities’ handling of the fire has been widely criticized by residents of Mandalay, according to the Irrawaddy online journal, citing questions of why it took so long to bring charges against Ye Myint or make information about the incident publicly available.
Another blaze broke out at the Mandalay Hotel in the city’s busy market district on the same evening, causing 4.2 million kyats (U.S. $4,380) of damage. The following morning, police announced the loss and charged the owner of the hotel with negligence, the report said.
It said that security personnel assigned to Ye Myint had also reportedly interfered in emergency crew efforts to extinguish the fire at his home and prevented journalists from taking photos or video of the incident, without providing an explanation.
Nevertheless, the case against the chief minister highlights changes that have occurred in Myanmar since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011 and began to implement substantial democratic reforms.
According to the Myanmar Times, nearly five years ago, a fire broke out in similar circumstances at the home of a senior military official in the Mandalay Palace compound, but all news of the incident was suppressed and it remains unclear whether any charges were ever brought against him.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.