The Burmese government has gagged media linked to parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann after President Thein Sein purged him and his allies from the ruling party leadership on Thursday 13 August, months ahead of a historic general election.
The media crackdown comes after the heavy-handed involvement of security forces in Shwe Mann’s expulsion this week, and will add to concern about the progress of democratic reforms, given the government’s use of tactics reminiscent of military-era purges.
Military personnel surrounded the monumental USDP headquarters late on Wednesday and soon afterwards powerful politicians close to the president began meetings to purge Shwe Mann’s faction.
Shwe Mann angered the military in June by supporting an attempt in parliament to amend the constitution to limit the political role of the armed forces.
The United States has emphasised the need to maintain public trust in Burma’s democratic shift ahead of the 8 November election, which could be the first free and fair vote since the end of 49 years of military rule in 2011.
Following Shwe Mann’s removal as ruling party chief, the Ministry of Information ordered the Union Daily newspaper and the weekly journal Leader to suspend print runs, Yamin Tin, editor-in-chief of Union Daily, told Reuters.
Both publications are run by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and, until Wednesday, were regarded as mouthpieces for Shwe Mann.
“The staff was told to keep working so we expect we will be able to resume after some time,” Yamin Tin said.
The Minister of Information was unavailable for comment.
Despite being dismissed as party leader, Shwe Mann still holds the powerful position of speaker of parliament, and he visited the parliamentary complex on Friday.
“I will work for the good of the people and will stand for the people until the end,” he said in a message posted on his Facebook page, his first public comment since the incident unfolded.
Also on Friday, radio station Cherry FM, linked to Shwe Mann’s daughter-in-law, was off the air.
“We lost our signal,” said Than Htwe Zaw, a manager at Cherry FM.
He said the signal went down early on Thursday, and he did not know what caused the stoppage. Cherry had not received an order to stop broadcasting, he added.
PARLIAMENT SPEAKER UNDER PRESSURE
Shwe Mann may well face more trouble when parliament reconvenes on 18 August, as he is coming under pressure to table a bill that could lead to his own impeachment.
Burma’s electoral commission sent a letter to Shwe Mann on Thursday requesting he table a vote on a bill to allow constituents to recall members of parliament. The letter was printed in State media on Friday.
Parliament debated the act twice in July. If approved, lawmakers would lose their seats if one percent of constituents sign a petition to recall them and the electoral commission finds their complaint is justified.
Shwe Mann faces a petition from his own constituents for his support of the bill to amend the constitution, and to limit the military’s role in politics.
The timing of the letter, and the attention it was given by state media, which did not report Shwe Mann’s ousting, “is likely to raise eyebrows”, said Burmese news service Irrawaddy.
“It’s not a coincidence,” said political analyst Yan Myo Thein. “It seems the authorities are serious about taking action against him since they sent that letter at this time. It may also be to put pressure on him to resign.”
Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi cancelled travel plans after hearing of events at the USDP, said Win Htein, a member of the executive committee of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
“She thinks the change of leadership in the USDP is very important both for the country and the parliament and she shouldn’t be travelling at this point,” he said.
Shwe Mann had built ties with Suu Kyi, who has called repeatedly for the military to withdraw from politics.
Her relationship with President Thein Sein is frosty. Suu Kyi, in an interview with Reuters earlier this year, said the president ran a “hardline regime” and was insincere about reform.
“Shwe Mann is closer to Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Win Htein.
“As for the President Thein Sein, he and Aung San Suu Kyi are not very close so it is hard to tell how the situation is going to evolve from now on.”
Suu Kyi’s NLD, which swept the polls in 1990 but was never allowed to rule by the military, is expected to do well in November. However, she is banned from becoming president under a clause in the military-drafted constitution.
Read more about the upcoming November elections here.