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No faith in new VP, say jailed students

As the incumbent Rangoon chief minister, former military general Myint Swe has called the shots in Burma’s most populous administrative region for the past five years.

Blacklisted by the United States, the Union Solidarity and Development Party member is not seen as a supporter of continuing political reform in Burma. Nevertheless, Myint Swe became Burma’s second in charge this week, placed in the role of vice president by unelected army members of parliament.

The 64-year-old’s tenure as top dog in the former capital saw several police actions that critics labeled as overreach. On 5 March 2015 officers took to violence outside Rangoon City Hall. Batons flailing, policemen charged into the middle of a group of 200 education reform protestors. Police were aided by a small group of plainclothes thugs wearing red armbands emblazoned with the Burmese word for “duty”. The vigilantes recalled the image of the Swan Arr Shin, a group of civilians trained by Burma’s former junta to intimidate democracy activists.

In the wake of the violence Burma’s Information Minister Ye Htut rejected reports that the Swan Arr Shin was involved and denied that the group still exists. But students beaten and jailed after further protests over education reforms in the town of Letpadan, Pegu Division, say that as chief minister, Myint Swe called upon the hired thugs to brutalise protestors.

“The military appointed the kind of individuals who are known for repressing civilian activists and we see that as intentional—a signal to continue the repression,” said jailed student leader Kyaw Ko Ko.

“I am worried about having an individual like this with such questionable background as a vice president to be part of the government. He will be detrimental to the reforms in the country,” echoed Kyaw Ko Ko’s jailed comrade Phyo Phyo Aung.

This week the election-winning National League for Democracy got its pick for president, choosing party stalwart Htin Kyaw as the country’s next leader. The result, which included the elevation of NLD lawmaker Henry Van Thio to the role of second vice president, took months of posturing between Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and the military over Burma’s new leadership.

This week’s apparent détente has led some observers to believe a balance will be struck, despite Myint Swe’s apparent conservatism.

“As a government with strong backing from the parliament, they should be able to check and balance this,” said Nanda Sitt Aung, who also remains incarcerated pending trial for his involvement in the 2015 student protests.

“The new government, the NLD, has been constantly fighting military dictatorship in the same way as us, since 1988. I think the party will be able to assess and adopt a policy fitting with the situation. They may well have this in place already.”

With Myint Swe as a symbol of their country’s half-century of military rule, all Burmese—and especially those behind bars—will be watching closely to see how, or if, the once beleaguered NLD will be able to deal with an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days.