Myanmar Shuffles Cabinet Amid Press Crackdown, Aid Dispute

Information Minister Aung Kyi and Health Minister Pe Thet Khin Allowed to Resign

Myanmar presidential spokesman Ye Htut was nominated Wednesday to be the country’s new minister of information after his predecessor resigned, part of a cabinet shuffle amid tighter restrictions on the news media and criticism over the expulsion of aid agencies from areas hit by sectarian strife.

A presidential order published in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Wednesday said Information Minister Aung Kyi and Health Minister Pe Thet Khin had been allowed to resign “of their own volition,” phrasing that usually suggests dismissals.

In Wednesday’s parliament session, a letter from the office of President Thein Sein nominated Ye Htut—Mr. Thein Sein’s vocal spokesperson and effectively the public face of the reformist government—as Mr. Aung Kyi’s replacement. Than Aung, currently the country’s deputy health minister, was nominated for the top job in his ministry.

State media gave no further explanation for the resignations or the new nominations. Mr. Aung Kyi and Dr. Pe Thet Khin couldn’t be reached for comment. Legislators can voice objections to the appointments if they wish, but the nominees are all but guaranteed approval for the posts.

The dismissed ministers kept low profiles in the government. Mr. Aung Kyi, even in his role as minister of information, was never a public face for the administration or the point-person for journalists. Mr. Ye Htut played the de facto role for the government as a whole, the only spokesman who engaged directly with media and commented on everything from investment to foreign policy.

A former lieutenant colonel, Mr. Ye Htut joined the Ministry of Information in 2004, according to the

Myanmar Times newspaper, and was promoted to deputy information minister under the reformist government of Thein Sein. In February 2013, he was named to the new position of presidential spokesman.

Mr. Ye Htut is also known for his prolific use of Facebook, where he shares news on the government and the military and opines on current affairs in Myanmar and beyond.

A retired general like many in the government, Mr. Aung Kyi had previously served as liaison with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest during military rule until the transition to civilian government rule was launched in 2010. Press restrictions were greatly relaxed under Mr. Aung Kyi’s oversight. But the government has been strongly criticized in recent months for cracking down on journalists.

Earlier this month, reporters and the chief executive officer of Myanmar’s Unity Journal were sentenced to a decade in prison for an article that claimed a military facility was producing chemical weapons, a decision decried by human rights groups and diplomats as unjustly harsh. Other journalists have been prosecuted for defamation.

Dr. Pe Thet Khin also kept a low profile in the cabinet, assuming his post in 2011 when Mr. Thein Sein came to power. His ministry oversees all aspects of health care in the country, including the decision to expel the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières from Rakhine state in February.

That decision was criticized by international observers who said it was sparking a health-care crisis in the state where more than 140,000 remain displaced in squalid camps—mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims, who have been the target of sectarian violence by majority Buddhists.

The cabinet changes follow the dismissal on June 20 of Religious Affairs Minister Hsan Hsint, whom the government said was “terminated”under a section of the constitution which allows the president to fire a minister deemed inadequate.

Analysts described this as far stronger language than is typically used for replacing ministers. Mr. Hsan Hsint is being tried for corruption and sedition. He denies the charges and says they are politically motivated.

A separate notice, also on June 20, said that Chief Minister of Rakhine state Hla Maung Tin had been “allowed to retire.” He was replaced by Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Ohn, who previously served as deputy minister for border affairs.

Observers considered the June cabinet shuffle to be an attempt by Mr. Thein Sein to get a grip on the sectarian divisions between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims in Rakhine, where hundreds of people have been killed and more than 140,000 displaced over the past two years, mostly Muslims. The turmoil has stained the government’s reputation and has been criticized by other countries and the United Nations.

— Myo Myo contributed to this article.

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