When three Yangon journalists were arrested this week for publishing an article that criticized the Yangon Region chief minister Phyo Min Thein, one lawmaker from the chief minister’s own party spoke out in their defense.
“What they wrote about the 2016-2017 fiscal budget is correct,” said Kyaw Zeya, a regional MP for Dagon Township, referring to allegations in an Oct. 8 article in the Eleven Weekly Journal that the chief minister borrowed K13.5 billion (US$8.8 million) from two private banks in order to purchase over 1,000 public buses without parliamentary approval and in violation of Myanmar’s constitution.
The article cited a report by the regional Auditor General’s Office that alleges other instances of financial mismanagement, and it quoted several MPs, including Kyaw Zeya, who accused the chief minister in parliament of abusing his power.
On Wednesday, Eleven editors Nayi Min, Kyaw Zaw Linn, and Phyo Wai Win were arrested and charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which outlaws the publication of information that could induce people “to commit an offense against the State or against the public tranquility”. The lawsuit was filed by Aung Kyaw Khaing, the director of the Yangon Region government office.
Kyaw Zeya has pledged to testify on behalf of the three journalists, telling Coconuts: “I was a part of the conversation when these questions were brought up, so I feel responsible for establishing what had happened. That’s why I want to be a witness.”
Rights groups have called for the journalists’ immediate release and criticized the deterioration of press freedom in Myanmar since the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power in 2016.
“The decline of press freedom in Myanmar is alarming,” said Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights. “With each imprisoned journalist, the authorities dig the country deeper into an authoritarian pit.”
Kyaw Zeya said he does not believe his party has restricted press freedom, characterizing the arrest of the three journalists as a case in which the regional government should have offered an explanation to the public before filing its lawsuit.
“They should discuss why they’re taking action instead of simply deciding what to do,” he said.
For other reasons, however, the lawmaker conceded that Myanmar might be sinking into authoritarianism. “I am fearful that we are returning to the age of the generals,” he said. “We are not listening to the common people. What we say and what is actually happening do not match.”
Kyaw Zeya’s candid appraisals of his party’s performance have gotten him into trouble before. Last month, he was removed from his position as chairperson of the Dagon Township chapter of the NLD shortly after criticizing the regional government’s urban planning policies in an interview with a local media outlet.
When asked how recent events have shaped his hopes for the party, he said: “We are lacking momentum, and there’s a sense that nothing is getting done. You can’t change everything by yourself if you’re working in a party. There isn’t much will to change things.”
He added: “I hope a new generation will take up the mantle and be better than us.”