Lawmakers in Myanmar on Thursday expressed frustration over the government’s defense of a minister who trivialized the needs of a local community, demanding that he be punished for cursing and rebuking villagers.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) introduced a motion in parliament this week to debate and seek action against Minister for Rural Development Ohn Myint, who was caught on video using harsh and high-handed language in response to requests for clean water in a rural village.
NLD MP Aung Soe said Thursday that he and other lawmakers who backed the motion would not rest until action was taken against the minister, who made the remarks last week to residents of Thit Ya Kauk village in Magway division.
Aung Soe slammed Information Minister Aung Kyi for defending Ohn Myint, a general in the previous military junta.
Aung Kyi had said that Ohn Myint’s words had been misinterpreted.
“We don’t accept how Aung Kyi, minister of information, responded to my proposal,” Aung Soe told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “He said Minister Ohn Myint didn’t mean to say these things.”
But Aung Soe said a minister should not make such comments, which some observers said reflect the views of conservative figures opposed to the political reforms undertaken in Myanmar since the country’s former military junta stepped down in 2011.
“He has made these kinds of offensive statements more than once to the public, including once in Taninthari division.”
According to a report by Mizzima news agency, President Thein Sein’s spokesman Ye Htut said the minister had been called in and “reprimanded … for his inappropriate speech.”
Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann had asked for more time to study the motion, Aung Soe said.
“We will have to wait and see, but we will continue our efforts if Minister Ohn Myint is not punished for his rude comments to the public,” he said.
According to local newspaper reports, Ohn Myint told the villagers, “You can complain as much as you like,” when they had asked for government help in building a water purification system,
“[But] don’t say the government is useless. If so, you will not get even a kyat,” he said, referring to the country’s national currency.
“If those who go against the government can’t be controlled,” Ohn Myint warned his listeners, “they must be sent to jail.”
When villagers complained that water obtained from their existing wells was “yellow” and caused food cooked in it to quickly rot, the minister said if they wanted clean water they would simply have to move.
Aung Soe said the minister’s comments were also insulting to the country’s political parties and politicians.
Pe Than, a member of parliament from the Rakhine National Development Party (RDNP) who backed Aung Soe’s proposal, said that Aung Kyi was wrong to suggest that Ohn Myint’s comments might have been said in a “friendly manner.”
“Minister Ohn Myint said he would send politicians to jail and that he was the one who slapped people’s faces around the country. It was too much,” he told RFA.
“These days are not like in the past. Politicians were treated like criminals in the past. If we let him say things like this, [government ministers] will continue saying them.”
Pe Than said that ministers had frequently made similar comments to politicians and the public in the past, but that “this time was much worse.”
“[We will see] if they really take action or simply pretend to do something.”
Critics of Ohn Myint have suggested that President Thein Sein or state prosecutors take legal action against the minister but experts say he may be protected from lawsuits because of his status as a minister.
According to a report by Myanmar’s Eleven newspaper, Aung Soe at Tuesday’s parliamentary session also accused the minister of telling Thit Ya Kauk villagers he “didn’t care about politicians.”
He was also reported as saying that “if the local people go against the government, financial assistance can’t be provided.”
In another incident at Pulonetonelone village in Taninthari region’s Kawthaung township, the minister dared residents to cross him, Aung Soe said.
When they had asked for cement roads instead of planned stone roads, Eleven quoted the MP as saying, Ohn Myint responded by telling them that if they tried to “go against us” they would be “slapped in the face.”
Eleven reported that in addressing Aung Soe’s concerns at Tuesday’s session, information minister Aung Kyi acknowledged that Ohn Myint’s comments had “included rude words.”
“But it could be considered that his aim was to fulfill the needs of the rural people,” the minister said.
Eleven reported Aung Kyi as saying that Ohn Myint’s ministry had provided residents of the two villages with many of the materials they had asked for, and that his generosity should be taken into consideration when deciding how to address the situation.
Call for probe
Khaing Maung Ye, an MP with the National Democratic Force (NDF) party told RFA Thursday that the government should launch an independent probe into Ohn Myint’s actions.
“These kinds of comments shouldn't even be made by regular civilians, let alone by a Union minister,” he said.
“We were shocked to hear these comments and think that an independent organization should investigate this issue.
Reported by Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.