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Burma’s parliament emerges from the shadows

26 March 2012

While international attention has focused on the main personalities negotiating historic changes in Burma, the national legislature has begun flexing its muscles, writes our correspondent in Rangoon


Against many people’s expectations, the speaker of Burma’s lower house, former general Thura Shwe Mann (above), has emerged as the strongest advocate of strengthening the parliamentary system.
Photo: Christopher Davy

Against many people’s expectations, the speaker of Burma’s lower house, former general Thura Shwe Mann (above), has emerged as the strongest advocate of strengthening the parliamentary system.
Photo: Christopher Davy

IN JUST a few days, Aung San Suu Kyi and forty-six other representatives of her party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, will find out whether they have won seats in Burma’s parliament in a series of by-elections triggered by ministerial appointments. This is the first time the Lady, as she is often called, has been able to contest an election; during the 1990 and 2010 polls she was under house arrest. Not surprisingly, her campaign trips across the country during the short campaign period – including to the rural delta township of Kawhmu, not far from Rangoon, where she is standing as a candidate – have attracted a great deal of attention, energising communities in a way the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, can only dream of.

Wherever she goes – even in the capital, Naypyidaw – she has been greeted by thousands of ecstatic supporters; in Myaungmya, a small rice-trading town in the Irrawaddy delta where her mother was born and raised, tens of thousands turned out to see her. Assuming the vote is relatively free and fair, Aung San Suu Kyi and many of her colleagues will soon be taking their seats in Burma’s bicameral national parliament, known as the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.

The NLD’s decision in November 2011 to return to the formal political process has been dissected and analysed extensively; while most commentators – and members of the public – are supportive, some have warned of the danger of legitimising a political system that formalises the military’s role in politics by giving it 25 per cent of seats in parliament. In reality, the NLD had little choice but to play the military’s game: given the pace of political change over the past year, there was a real danger it would be left by the wayside.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to contest a seat herself has proved more controversial. There are legitimate concerns that she could be marginalised in the parliament, struggling to make the transition from icon to an ordinary politician – just one of 440 in the parliament’s lower house, the Pyithu Hluttaw.

JUST as views of the Burmese government have shifted dramatically over the past twelve months, perceptions of the parliament in Naypyidaw have undergone their own transformation. Shortly after convening for the first time on 31 January last year, it was dubbed the “fifteen-minute parliament” by opposition activists because of the brevity of the initial sessions, which saw Thein Sein elected president. One year on, when the third session began on 21 January, the Reuters news agency published a feature article with the headline, “In Myanmar, a Sham Parliament Stirs to Life,” describing how MPs were drafting anti-corruption legislation and preparing to discuss the national budget.

Yet the parliament is rarely mentioned when the international community, Aung San Suu Kyi or activists laud Burma’s reforms. Lacking the drama of NLD campaign rallies or mass releases of high-profile political prisoners, it is the hidden success story of the “Burmese spring.”

“The parliament has been much more dynamic, and with greater space for open and frank debate, than most observers thought it would be,” says Richard Horsey, an independent researcher who visits Burma regularly. “Both the parliament, and the president and his administration, have played key roles in driving the reforms.”

Early indications gave little grounds for optimism, however. The military regime – known as the State Peace and Development Council – convened the first session, which ended with the handover of power to President Thein Sein’s government on 30 March last year. Opposition lawmakers made up barely a fifth of the 498 elected positions and only 15 per cent of all parliamentarians. Journalists were barred from watching proceedings and representatives threatened with jail terms for passing on details of debates and legislation. Reports in state media were extensive but still showed the telltale signs of government censorship. But there were a few positive indications, as I noted in an article for Australian National University-run blog New Mandala shortly after the session ended.

Early perceptions were often tainted by the November 2010 general election and the assumption that the USDP and military would form a tight voting bloc. How, critics asked, could a highly flawed poll – one that the main opposition group boycotted and the USDP dominated – create a credible legislature that works in the interests of the country and its people? Yet this is largely what has happened.

The second session, which began on 22 August last year – three days after an historic meeting between President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi – marked a major turning point, with legislation approved, proposals debated and even a call for a general amnesty supported by military MPs. Reversing the closed-door policy, the government allowed journalists to watch proceedings, an important step towards improving transparency and showing how this institution would function in Burma’s new political landscape.

“We can monitor what they’re saying, write an article and send it out by phone from the parliament press room,” a Burmese correspondent for a foreign news agency commented at the time. “This is amazing for us – a complete change from the past.”

Laws legalising microfinance, labour unions and peaceful protests were approved; so too was an important but largely symbolic amendment to the election law, which encouraged the NLD to re-register and contest the by-elections. Foreign-based critics, including US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, journalists and exiled Burmese activists, have been invited to observe parliamentary proceedings and meet representatives. A delegation from the European Parliament visited recently, and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has been asked to help build the capacity of representatives.

Perhaps most importantly, the unswerving support for the government that many expected from parliament has not materialised. “Far from being a rubber stamp, parliament is today perhaps the most dynamic state institution, unburdened as a new institution by the inertia that threatens change in other parts of government,” says Thant Myint-U, a noted scholar and author of the acclaimed 2006 history, The River of Lost Footsteps. “Debates in parliament have been increasingly open and animated, providing for the very first time in half a century a public forum for the deliberation of issues, ranging from education to emigration.”

According to Thant Myint-U, the fact that this shift hasn’t been recognised reflects the perennial oversimplification of Burmese politics in the international arena. “The old story of Aung San Suu Kyi versus the junta has now been edited to include the idea of a reformist president and quasi-civilian government, but the idea of a reformist parliament is just one level of complexity too many.”

This means that observers fixated on President Thein Sein’s historic détente with Aung San Suu Kyi have missed an event in Naypyidaw just as astonishing: party lines have regularly broken down in parliament, with even appointed military representatives split on issues not central to the armed forces’ interests. On some occasions, government-backed bills have been held up by disagreements among USDP representatives. Despite the fact that members of the executive hail from the USDP, unity has come from lawmakers’ commitment to act as a check on the government.

To give just two of many examples: when the home affairs minister, Lieutenant General Ko Ko, submitted the bill that would allow some forms of protest, a legislation vetting committee deleted several sections, including one that would have banned protests near government buildings. While a number of amendments proposed by opposition parliamentarians were voted down, on one occasion the Pyithu Hluttaw overruled the minister to approve a change to the law. The government’s private education bill also hit a snag last year, with the Amyotha Hluttaw, or upper house, rejecting amendments approved by the Pyithu Hluttaw. The proposed legislation had to be resolved in a joint sitting of the two houses.

WHILE it’s surprising, this development partly reflects the nature of the USDP, a party brought to­gether in 2010 through a mixture of force, fear and coercion. It comprises an unexpectedly diverse array of personalities: in the country’s border areas it recruited members of the dominant local ethnic group; in the lowlands, which are dominated by the majority ethnic Bamar, the party’s ranks are filled not only with ex-military but also with lawyers, doctors and retired civil servants. (One of Burma’s two vice-presidents is an ethnic Shan doctor from Lashio.) With expertise and political experience in short supply, those with knowledge of legal, economic and public policy issues have quickly come to the fore.

Some USDP representatives “are savvy, intelligent and know how the old system works, so they are in a very good position to bring about changes to the polity,” says Aung Naing Oo, deputy director of the Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute. “Despite the fact that it is a USDP- and military-dominated parliament you can see the diversity,” says the Harvard-educated political analyst, who recently visited Burma for the first time in more than two decades. “Many of the parliamentarians we met are fast learners; they have read the constitution cover to cover and are well-versed in their own right in parliament issues.”

Aung Naing Oo says that the breakdown in rigid party boundaries had come in part because representatives understood “what is at stake for the country.” Now, he says, “the division between the opposition and the USDP and military bloc has become blurred as the issues [being discussed] are key for the country’s progress towards democracy.”

During the third session, which was continuing when this article was being written, the gulf between the government and parliament appeared to have widened. When President Thein Sein proposed amendments to the Ward and Village-tract Administration Bill, which will guide the selection of local leaders, USDP and opposition representatives joined forces to narrowly vote it down in late February. “The president recommended changing some sections of the bill from a secret ballot to a negotiated selection,” one representative of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party told me when we met recently in his home constituency. “It was a very important vote for democracy,” he added, still visibly excited.

Burmese journalist Kyaw Thu, from the Oxford-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, says the parliament’s decision could have a profound and positive impact on the two-thirds of Burma’s population that lives in rural areas. “Rural politics is quite different from urban politics,” he tells me. “While urban elites talk about GDP, ideology and macroeconomic policy, the rural population is struggling to fight for survival.” What concerns rural communities, he believes, “is having a right to elect the village administrator they want, instead of the one that regional administrators have handpicked for them.”

As with much of the legislation passed to date, there are serious concerns about implementation. While the government and parliament are essentially reform-minded, many in the bureaucracy – and even some region-level officials – appear unwilling or unable to uphold Thein Sein’s stated desire of “clean government and good governance.”

“Even when the parliament has decided some things there are still problems at the lower levels of the government. They have some problems dealing with the public and this needs be solved,” says Than Nyein, chair of the National Democratic Force, which was established in mid 2010 by former NLD members and won sixteen seats in last year’s election.

The major opposition party in the 2010 poll, the National Democratic Force has struggled to maintain its status following the return of the NLD to electioneering. The party has lost members to the NLD and, its leaders allege, been the subject of a “smear campaign”; and the consequent decline in funds and support makes it unlikely that the party will perform well in the by-elections. Nevertheless, its representatives have played a crucial role in the parliament over the past twelve months, forging valuable working relationships with representatives from the USDP and ethnic minority parties, and vetting government-backed draft legislation.

The shift in how laws are introduced and dealt with has presented hitherto unimaginable opportunities for influencing the contents of legislation. An enormous range of commentators are expressing their views on legislation in the country’s increasingly vibrant press. Domestic business organisations like the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry are being consulted on economic reforms. In some cases, such as the Natural Disaster Preparedness Law and the Labour Organisation Law, international non-government organisations have played an integral role in the drafting process.

When I visited the office of a small, unofficial non-government organisation in Rangoon, the group had just finished analysing a draft law, provided to it by an opposition representative, on a topic of significant national importance. (I have decided not to name the group because of the sensitivity of its work.) The government ministry that drafted the law had apparently done so without consulting local or international experts or analysing regional examples. If approved in its original form, many people told me, the law would have been a dangerous step backwards for the country.

It was shortly after the draft was submitted to parliament in the middle of last year that the group sprang into action. In the words of one member, the group was “like a nucleus, disseminating all the information through different channels” – to political parties, farmers’ groups, non-government organisations and other community-based groups. Crucially, the material also went to members of a bill vetting committee, where the group’s literature found a willing audience. “We went through a very effective MP and he disseminated all the information in parliament to the right people.” Later, it was even possible to establish direct dialogue with USDP politicians.

Later in 2011, the draft law was held up in parliament and subsequent revisions addressed a number of the group’s concerns. Buoyed by this success, its members have resolved to continue lobbying even after the law is approved, when the government introduces the by-laws, acts and standard operating procedures that guide its implementation.

In their dingy office in a run-down condominium in Rangoon’s northern suburbs, I asked the group’s key members how they felt about their new-found influence. “Empowering,” responded one of them. “It is a really big change. If this was under the previous government,” he said, pausing to find the right words, “then I wouldn’t meet you and talk like this.” He mentioned how amazed he was to be able to attend two large public seminars in Rangoon, one calling for the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam and another for land reform that would benefit the country’s small-scale farmers.

“This is allowed by the current government and I really appreciate that,” he said. “Although I’m still concerned whether it can go backwards… this is really encouraging for us to move our agenda forward. If we don’t say this is empowerment, what else can we call empowerment? It’s really powerful.”

AT THE centre of the increasingly vibrant parliament sits one figure: Thura Shwe Mann, the former number three in the military junta and now speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw. During a ceremony to mark International Day of Democracy last year, many were taken aback when he addressed the crowd with the salutation, “Dear democratic comrades,” before exclaiming, “I am a democrat!”

“We thought it was hilarious to hear a former general say that,” says one journalist. “None of us took him seriously.” Against most expectations, though, he has emerged as the strongest advocate for the strengthening of the parliamentary system and its independence from government. He is known to criticise government ministers who don’t answer questions from representatives properly, once forced through a proposal for a general amnesty submitted by an opposition politician and has warned that a weak legislature could lead to the return of “tyranny.”

The speaker has also been a central figure in the recent showdown between the government and lawmakers over the 2012–13 budget. As part of the checks and balances built into the 2008 constitution, the government must submit its budget to parliament for approval, which it did in early February. A few days later, Thura Shwe Mann proposed raising the salaries of civil servants as a means of combating corruption – the typical entry-level wage is about A$40 a month – and paying for the increase by cancelling or suspending government projects that parliamentary committees had decided were unnecessary. On 14 March, with just weeks until the end of the Burmese financial year, the government announced a pay rise of A$40 for all civil servants, a compromise on the A$125 minimum salary requested by Thura Shwe Mann.

There is speculation about the speaker’s motives for pushing the pay rise, with some questioning whether he is attempting to position himself for the presidency in 2015. But the fact that most opposition representatives – indeed, most of the legislature – seem to be backing him suggests that they believe his intentions are genuine.

A more important question is whether key figures in Burma’s political establishment will tolerate this messy and quite public spat, which, given the budget still needs to be approved, could continue for several weeks. Kyaw Thu says that he believes there is little to worry about while both sides are reform-minded. “I look at [the dispute] as an important aspect of democracy… the president and the speakers are just debating reforms,” he says.

But Maung Wuntha, a journalist who won a seat in the 1990 election running as a candidate for the NLD, says he believes it is “a potentially dangerous split.” It seems obvious, he says, that Thura Shwe Mann resented the government’s decision not to agree to pay rises. “On the other hand, some elements in the government don’t seem to like the emerging role of the parliament. They look like they want to use it as a rubber stamp.”

THE vibrancy of politics in the capital and on the campaign trail with the NLD has not been matched in the fourteen regional legislatures established under the 2008 constitution. These parliaments, which range in size from twenty-two to 143 members, were initially welcomed as a step towards decentralisation, one that would give ethnic minority groups more say in local governance. In some cases – Chin State and Rakhine State, for example – the opposition holds almost half of all seats, and many of the USDP legislators are from ethnic minorities.

In contrast to parliament sessions in Naypyidaw, which have run for months, most regional legislatures have convened only briefly and few laws have been approved. The surprise exception has been the USDP-dominated Ayeyarwady Region Hluttaw, which has passed about half a dozen pieces of new legislation.

“The lack of capacity [in regional parliaments] is a huge problem,” says Aung Tun, a research fellow at Myanmar Egress, a non-government organisation that recently began training regional politicians. “They want to take on more responsibilities but many don’t yet have the skills to do their jobs properly.” This problem is particularly acute among opposition representatives, he says, whereas many in the USDP were capable local administrators but stuck in a rigid party structure. “The USDP recruited well before the election and many of its representatives are well educated, even if they are not that popular.”

The central government’s apparent decision to distribute just 4 per cent of its overall budget to state and regional governments will not have done much to build confidence. But Aung Tun tells me he believes the regional bodies could play an important role in national reconciliation, one of Burma’s most pressing issues, if given the opportunity. “Decentralisation is particularly important in ethnic minority areas. A key solution to the ethnic conflicts is to give the groups some control over governance, for example, by allowing them to come up with their own laws.”

The lack of activity in state parliaments is not the only cause for concern in Burma’s new political structure. Transparency is still an issue: without an official parliamentary website or publication, it’s often fiendishly difficult to find information on debates and draft laws. Criticism has also been voiced over the lack of a formal consultation process for legislation.

And then there’s the calibre and vintage of some politicians. Over a drink in the crowded cafe at the top of Rangoon’s tallest office building, Aung Tun from Myanmar Egress tells me a joke doing the rounds that pokes fun at the age and lack of skills of many parliamentarians. Where is the country’s fastest internet connection? In the parliament, because few people there know how to use a computer.

But Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Burma, says that MPs are struggling with a lack of technical and human resources, particularly given the extent of their duties and lack of experience. “The parliament is still not sufficiently equipped,” says Wilson, now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Department of Political and Social Change. “I understand there are not enough internet connections in the parliament yet and committees need staff who are knowledgeable and effective. Individual members also need staff and research assistance quite urgently if they are to be able to do their jobs.”

There’s also still a significant disconnect between events in Naypyidaw and the lives of ordinary Burmese. Laws and proposals are yet to have much of an impact. In the domestic press, reports from the capital are pushed to the back of the news section by photos and articles from the NLD’s by-election campaign. The long news broadcasts of parliamentary debates, with their monotonous voiceovers, are viewed more as an imposition than an important element of democracy – and this is not helped by the fact that they regularly cut into broadcasts of popular South Korean drama series.

According to Maung Wuntha, the parliament continues to lack legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Burmese. “Many people do not think the representatives are worthy of their title,” he tells me. “But when the NLD decided to take part in the by-elections, people became more interested.” He criticises the USDP for “pretending to be broad-minded and good-hearted” and “forcing” through legislation. “Most proposals from opposition representatives were voted down, forced to be withdrawn or pushed aside with the term ‘to be recorded’.”

“The public are not interested because they find it hard to understand and follow what’s happening,” says Aung Tun. “But the business community is watching all the time what happens in Naypyidaw.”

On the campaign trail, Aung San Suu Kyi has highlighted three issues: rule of law, national peace and changing the constitution. As an election platform, it reveals little about the party’s stance on key issues currently before parliament, including land reform and media freedom. The NLD has frequently called for higher government spending on education and health, but won’t be able to influence the budget until 2013–14. When parliament sits for the first time after the by-elections, it is expected to focus on economic issues, such as the new foreign direct investment law. On this, all we know so far is that the NLD has reversed its anti-investment and trade policy (although it still refuses to call for sanctions to be lifted) and now supports “responsible” investment that benefits the people.

OF COURSE, this lack of detail will probably matter little when residents of the forty-eight constituencies go to vote on 1 April. The party appears set to win several dozen seats – probably enough to form the third-largest bloc, after the USDP and the military. But what happens after that is largely unclear. There is even discussion of Aung San Suu Kyi’s being promoted to the government, which would require her to give up her seat and leadership of the NLD. “My sense is that influence will come with good ideas, and if the NLD is up to the challenge, they will be influential beyond whatever number of seats they are able to win,” says Thant Myint-U.

Also unclear is the effect the party will have on the parliamentary environment and the interactions between existing representatives. Will the reform-minded Pyithu Hluttaw speaker find an ally in Aung San Suu Kyi, given the widely held belief that both are eyeing the 2015 presidency?

If the past is anything to go on, Aung San Suu Kyi will expect discipline and loyalty from her colleagues and is unlikely to encourage them to deviate from the party line. While the NLD has declined to cooperate with other opposition parties ahead of the by-elections, it could seek to expand its influence in parliament by forming alliances with other like-minded groups.

“I’m quite confident that the majority of NLD will win in the coming elections,” says the National Democratic Force’s Than Nyein. “And I hope that the NLD will behave very responsibly in the parliament… under the guidance of Aung San Suu Kyi.”

One thing is certain. When one of the world’s most famous dissidents takes her seat shortly after the by-elections, Burma’s national parliament will emerge from the shadows. “The prestige of the parliament will grow phenomenally once she is in there,” says Aung Naing Oo from the Vahu Development Institute. “The government may also want her [as a minister] for exactly the same reason. She needs to play her cards right.” •

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