Myanmar health minister curbs military appointments after rare protest

By Hnin Yadana Zaw and Timothy Mclaughlin

By Hnin Yadana Zaw and Timothy Mclaughlin YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's health minister on Wednesday scrapped plans to fill more of the 300 vacancies at his ministry with military personnel, after thousands of people joined a rare online protest against eight initial appointments. The Black Ribbon Movement, launched this week by medical workers and doctors following the appointments, called on the government to end the "militarization" of the ministry. "We had planned to appoint more people from the Ministry of Defense, but we won't go ahead with the plan since it's against the wishes of most people from the medical field," Health Minister Than Aung told Reuters. "I know there is a social media campaign about the decision. It's difficult for us to remove the people who have already been appointed, but that won't happen again," said Than Aung. The semi-civilian government, over which the military continues to exert considerable influence, has grown increasingly sensitive to public opinion, three months before the country's first free vote in 25 years. The military last week issued an unusual apology when photos circulated on Facebook showing dirty rice dropped from a helicopter carrying supplies to an area badly hit by floods. The Black Ribbon Movement marks a public show of dissatisfaction by Myanmar's widely respected doctors, who have played little public role in the country's politics since reforms began in 2011. "It doesn't make sense for us to be governed by people who do not understand our work and profession," Dr. Kyaw San Thinn, a surgeon and one of the organizers of the group, told Reuters. The doctor helped set up a Facebook page which gathered more than 40,000 supporters in the space of three days. Hundreds of doctors and nurses from the country's largest hospitals and rural clinics, along with Myanmar medics working in countries including the United States, Korea and Jamaica, commented and uploaded photos featuring black ribbons. "I changed this profile picture to protest against not only this single event of militarization at MOH but also against all the unfairness, injustice and mismanagement in our country," Dr. Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, said on the group's Facebook page. The junta that ruled Myanmar for 49 years until 2011 largely neglected the country's health care system and left it in shambles. "The government is ... telling the international community that we are now gaining democracy," said Kyaw San Thinn. "I think it is our right to speak out without having to worry." (Editing by Mike Collet-White)