A court inside Myanmar’s Insein Prison yesterday sentenced the country’s former minister of information to 10 years in prison for expressing dissent against the ruling military junta.
According to a report from the Burmese language service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), which cited “sources with ties” to the fearsome Yangon prison, the sentence against Ye Htut was handed down yesterday after a closed-door trial.
“The verdicts were made after questioning a prosecution witness, without asking a defense witness,” the source told RFA.
A former army officer, Ye Htut served as information minister and presidential spokesperson in the military-backed administration of President Thein Sein. The 64-year-old was arrested late last month in connection with “spreading wrong information on social media,” the military junta said. One security source told the AFP news agency that Ye Htut had been charged under section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s penal code, a broad and vaguely worded provision that criminalizes any comments or communication that can be deemed to “cause fear” or spread “false news.”
According to the RFA report, Ye Htut was sentenced to seven years in prison for violating Section 505(a) and three years for “sedition” under Section 124(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code.
As the spokesperson for the Thein Sein administration during 2013-2016 and information minister from 2014 to 2016, Ye Htut was the public face of the administration that presided over a dramatic, if ultimately limited, series of economic and political reforms during this period. Like many Myanmar citizens during those years, which were marked by the sudden advent of affordable mobile internet access, Ye Htut was to become a devotee of Facebook, a habit that he has kept up since his retirement.
It was this habit, and his reported tendency to make veiled criticisms of the military junta in posts to his 715,000-plus Facebook followers, that has seemingly led to his downfall. For the past two years, The Irrawaddy reported recently, Ye Htut has “subtly mocked” the military administration, “often using anecdotes and recycling official clichés drawn from past regimes to indirectly criticize the current one.”
Ye Htut’s downfall may be a hint of labyrinthine power struggles within the upper echelons of the military administration, as it suffers continued battlefield reversals. According to The Irrawaddy, Ye Htut was previously believed to be “untouchable” due to his connection to Gen. Soe Win, the deputy chief of the junta’s governing body and army commander-in-chief, and the junta’s Home Affairs Minister Gen. Yar Pyae.
The arrest of the former minister may be connected to the recent sentencing of two high-ranking generals to life imprisonment after they were found guilty of high treason, accepting bribes, illegal possession of foreign currency, and violating military discipline. The Irrawaddy cited Yangon-based diplomats as saying that Ye Htut’s arrest was junta chief Min Aung Hlaing’s payback against Soe Win, “for his perceived role” in the arrest of the two generals, who were confidantes of Min Aung Hlaing.
Questions have also surrounded the fate of Ye Htut’s former boss, Thein Sein. In late October, just one day prior to Ye Htut’s arrest, the former president reportedly missed the anniversary ceremony of the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and another scheduled meeting with a former Karen political leader. The reason for this was poor health, according to junta media, which reported that the 78-year-old former president “is in such poor health that he barely leaves his home or receives visitors,” as The Irrawaddy paraphrased it.
Infighting and bureaucratic-political maneuvering have long been rife in the upper echelons of the Myanmar armed forces, as has corruption and nest-feathering on a grand scale. But the current precarious military situation, with resistance forces making gains in many parts of the country, could well intensify these struggles in the weeks and months to come. As the walls close in, the military junta may start to devour its own.
As for Ye Htut, his sentencing marks a reversal for a leader who once personified the military-backed administration. This “sudden change of circumstances,” The Irrawaddy wrote, will “give him a chance to meet up with some of the reporters and journalists he used to know when he served as information minister.” It added, “Now perhaps they’ll be able to swap a few stories.”