The changes in Burma over the past two years have been startling. But what is arguably the most important development has gotten the least international attention: The country now has a vibrant, independent legislature.
In Burma today, members of parliament are investigating land disputes and corruption, cutting ministry budgets, seeking justice for extrajudicial killings by the military and, most importantly, delivering tangible benefits to their constituents. Indeed, many parliamentarians find themselves in a state of disbelief at what they have been able to achieve since the first parliament session convened in January 2011.
With so much changing so quickly, MPs’ desire to implement a system of political checks and balances has regularly brought them into conflict with government ministers who are more used to autocracy than legislative oversight.
Expectations were low following a deeply flawed election in November 2010, in which the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won about three-quarters of the seats in the fledgling parliament, largely due to a boycott by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). The ethnic and opposition parties that contested the vote won around 20 percent of the seats up for grabs.
“Before, I thought that this parliament was also just under the USDP and we have to follow whatever they do. But there are many things we can do,” said J Yaw Wu, an upper house representative from the northern state of Kachin.
Since securing a place in parliament, J Yaw Wu has helped organize relief flights to the remote northern town of Putao to alleviate food shortages, lobbied for greater ethnic minority representation on parliamentary committees and delegations, and pushed the government to crack down on immigration officials who are extorting money from members of the Lisu minority. He is also a member of a commission dedicated to investigating land disputes throughout the country.
During our interview in Naypyitaw, he pulled a thick dossier from his bag that was marked with the name of a township that is notorious for land confiscations.
“The people bring us these all the time,” he said, referring to the dossier, which contained a complaint that had been submitted to the committee to investigate. Parliamentarians from the USDP are not alone in their difficulties adjusting to the new political reality in Burma. The transformation has been just as dramatic for the 41 representatives of the NLD, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who won seats in the by-elections held in April 2012.
In a matter of months, Zaw Myint Maung went from languishing in jail to rubbing shoulders with MPs who had until only recently been appointed by the commander-in-chief under the 2008 military-backed constitution.
Although the NLD has vowed to amend the constitution and remove military MPs from parliament – they hold 25 percent of the seats – Zaw Myint Maung said that their presence has provided a “good opportunity” for the NLD to engage with the Tatmadaw military party on a daily basis.