NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - Myanmar has gagged media linked to parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann after he and his allies were purged from the ruling party leadership by President Thein Sein on Thursday months ahead of a historic general election.
The media crackdown comes after a heavy-handed involvement of security forces in Shwe Mann’s ouster 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.
Shwe Mann angered the military by supporting an attempt in parliament in June to amend the constitution to limit the political role of the armed forces.
The United States has emphasized the need to maintain public trust in Myanmar’s democratic shift ahead of the Nov. 8 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 were 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.
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.
Shwe Mann was removed as leader of the USDP but 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 his removal as party leader.
Shwe Mann may well face more trouble when parliament reconvenes on Aug. 18. He is coming under pressure to table a bill that could lead to his own impeachment.
Myanmar’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. State media printed the letter on Friday.
Parliament debated the act twice in July. If it is 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 for the bill to amend the constitution and 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 Myanmar 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.”
Security forces 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.
Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi canceled 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 traveling 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 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. But she is banned from becoming president under a clause in the military-drafted constitution.
Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun and Timothy McLaughlin in Yangon and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Simon Webb; Editing by Mark Heinrich