Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein (left). Photo: AFP
Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein (left). Photo: AFP

Eleven Media Group, a company that publishes five weekly newspapers, apologized for an editorial last month which accused Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein of corruption. “Many citizens, whose minimum [daily] wage is US$2.50, are not satisfied with the news that a chief minister whose [monthly] salary is only around US$2,500 wears a Patek Philippe watch worth about $100,000,” wrote Than Thut Aung, Eleven Media CEO wrote. He has been jailed after the chief minister sued the newspaper under article 66(d) of the country’s Telecom law.

Adopted in 2013 under the previous government, this particular section of the law has been repeatedly used to silence criticism, raising concerns with regard to deteriorating freedom of speech.

According to the Myanmar Times, 23 lawsuits have been opened under section 66(d) since the NLD-led government took office in April, more than under the previous semi-civilian government. Last week, too, a woman in Yangon faced a defamation suit over a post on Facebook criticizing two NLD lawmakers. Meanwhile, the former ruling-party strong man Thura Shwe Mann, who is an ally of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has hinted at a future amendment of the law.

New SEZ on the way, exports down

The NLD government has been addressing concerns about economic development and exports. According to The Irrawaddy, a Yangon State Minister last week outlined a plan to develop a new Special Economic Zone (SEZ) as well a new airport terminal in Southern Yangon region. The Hanthawaddy International airport is already under construction in the Bago Division, East of Yangon.

The projects are aimed at stimulating economic development and creating job opportunities in one of the region’s poorest area.

The government also acknowledged the country’s export deficit. Exports of natural gas – a crucial source of income that accounts for half of total export earnings – dropped from US$3 billions to US$1.82, the Ministry of Commerce has reported. The disappointing export figures have been blamed mainly on the low price of crude oil. Thailand and China are the main buyers of the Myanmar’s natural gas.

In an effort to cut the trade deficit, the Ministry of Commerce also announced plans to restrict imports of luxury goods. “We will run a trade deficit if we allow duty-free shops to import things as they wish —the price of some cosmetics is in the six digits. We will not impose a ban on them, we just plan to reduce imports in order to cut the trade deficit,” minister U Khin Maung Lwin told the Irrawaddy.

Export volume have been stagnant at around US$11billion since 2014, but Myanmar has been importing more and more goods since the country’s opening in 2011. The country’s trade deficit reached US$4.9 billions in 2014 and is bound to increase. Myanmar, mainly exporting raw products and natural resources, has no other option but to import manufactured goods.

Myanmar celebrates Karen New Year

On December 29, Yangon and other big cities in Myanmar were filled with red, white and blue Karen traditional dresses as the country celebrated the Karen New Year, a national holiday. The Karen, once the country’s most important ethnic group, have spearheaded an armed rebellion that is one of the longest running in the world. Last year, the Karen National Union signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which was widely criticized for not including other Ethnic Armed Groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization. The celebrations of Karen New Year in Yangon and Naypyidaw and their newfound official approval highlight the close ties between KNU leader Mutu Say Poe and the Myanmar Armed Forces’ high ranking officers.

In a reference to the agricultural roots of the Karen tradition, at the Naypyidaw ceremony State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stressed the need for peace.

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