NLD’s chief minister for Yangon slammed by own party for disobeying Covid-19 restrictions

Yangon’s chief minister and several other regional officials are facing criticism for attending a religious event over the weekend despite a nationwide ban on large gatherings to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Both Phyo Min Thein and the NLD-led Yangon regional government posted photos to Facebook on Sunday of him and several other officials gathered at the Botahtaung Jetty.

“This goes against the government’s own instructions,” Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the NLD’s central information unit, told Myanmar Now.

Two members of the Yangon Covid-19 Response Committee were also present at the ceremony, where they took a boat to the mouth of the Yangon river to push a raft of offerings out to sea in a Buddhist rite of giving.

Renovations at the Botahtaung pagoda have been paused due to the Covid-19 epidemic. The giving ritual is generally performed before renovations can start or resume on a given pagoda.

Stay-at-home orders have been eased in Botahtaung township, where the ceremony was held, but a ban on gatherings of five or more people remains in place, as do orders to avoid crowds and to wear a mask at all times when outside.

The federal ban on gatherings was imposed on March 13 and remains in effect until the end of May. It explicitly includes religious gatherings, and several high-profile arrests have been made in recent weeks of people violating the ban by attending religious events.

But Phyo Min Thein denies the gathering at the pagoda was a religious ceremony. He insists he was there on regular government business and that those in attendance broke no laws or Covid-19 restrictions.

Even so, the Yangon government Facebook post described the event as a ceremony. It included the recitation of mantras and prayers. Phyo Min Thein’s wife, Khin Mi Mi Kywe, was in attendance dressed in traditional religious clothing. No one wore party uniforms.

“We were just doing prerequisite work before pagoda renovation could resume,” Phyo Min Thein told Myanmar Now.

He said that, when they began moving statues from one of the shrines, a crowd of people showed up unexpectedly to watch.

The health ministry and the Covid-19 committee are allowing construction projects to resume if workers follow health guidelines.

Phyo Min Thein said it was necessary to resume renovation on the pagoda now, while it’s still closed to visitors, and that doing so will help stimulate the economy.

Naing Ngan Lin, an NLD MP who chairs the Yangon Covid-19 Response Committee, also attended the event. He told Myanmar Now that, while more people showed up than expected, they were simply resuming work in accordance with government policies.

“We stopped renovations on the Botahtaung pagoda when the Covid-19 outbreak began. Now that we can resume government duty we are continuing the renovations,” he said. “We did our best to comply with the health guidelines.”

Moe Moe Suu Kyi, head of Yangon’s immigration ministry and a member of the Covid-19 committee, also attended. She could not be reached for comment.

Several MPs disagreed with the attendees.

“Was this a completely necessary event?” asked Nay Phone Latt, Union MP for Thingangyun township. “If you’re not allowing others to do this, you shouldn’t do it either. It’s not right.”

“It’s like they’re indicating they can set the rules but they don’t need to follow them,” said May Soe, Union MP for Botahtaung township.

Dagon township MP Kyaw Zay Ya said the event made it seem as if the government was telling the public “do as I say, not as I do.”

The photos received widespread condemnation on social media.

Other members of Phyo Min Thein’s cabinet in attendance included advocate general Khin Myo Kyi, border affairs minister Aung Soe Moe, Yangon mayor Maung Maung Soe, regional government secretary Soe Soe Zaw and others.

It is not the first time Phyo Min Thein has come under fire for seeming to ignore the threat of Covid-19.

He and other officials were criticised for standing too close to one another when passing out food rations to the poor just before Thingyan.

State counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi wrote in a Facebook post just after the event that “ministers are not immune to the virus,” though she did not mention Phyo Min Thein by name.

Preacher David Lah was arrested last week for holding church services in April in Yangon. A ward administrator in Insein township charged Lah on behalf of the Yangon government for violating section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law. Lah remains in custody at Insein prison.

In early May, 12 Muslim men were sentenced to three months in prison with labour for gathering to worship in April at a house in Mandalay.

And some of the more than 100 people who attended the funeral of a monk in Yayphyu township, in the Dawei district of Tanintharyi region, on April 12 were charged with defying a government order under section 188 of the Penal Code. They received fines of 100,000 kyat ($71) each.

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