Burma’s Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House) and Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) have been holding sessions since January 31, but it wasn’t until two weeks ago that members were allowed to question government ministers. The transcript of the meetings published by the state-owned paper New Light of Myanmar provides a peek inside the parliament.
So what have we discovered so far? As expected, the debates were non-antagonistic in a parliament dominated by the junta-backed party. Meanwhile, the minority had to submit questions in advance, which allowed government ministers to prepare well-researched reports on all issues raised by opposition MPs.
But the statistics and other information given by the junta’s ministers also turned out to be unexpectedly useful in determining the true situation in the country. And, rather than improving the image of the new government, they quite surprisingly ended up validating fears about the continuing suffering of Burma’s citizens under the insane and brutal leadership of the junta.
For example, the minister for agriculture and irrigation may have assured the parliament that most of the agricultural dikes and dams that were destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and Cyclone Giri last year have already been rehabilitated, but his report also highlighted how the junta’s denial about the scale of destruction was misleading. We also learned that 37 percent of the dikes in Ayeyawady and Yangon regions and in Rakhine state are still damaged, as are 46 percent in An township, and 42 percent in Yanbye township.
Yet despite the slow pace of reconstruction efforts in the Nargis-hit regions, the government had the audacity to boast that ‘rescue and rehabilitation tasks have achieved success’ and that other countries are using Burma as a model for their post-disaster efforts.
This isn’t all. The health minister claimed that Burma is providing free medical services for the poor, while the finance and revenue minister argued that increasing the salaries of government personnel isn’t a priority because wages have already been raised nine times since 1972.
A close examination of the transcript of proceedings also provided a better understanding of the junta’s censorship network. Asked by an MP to explain why a manuscript submitted to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) hadn’t been approved, the information minister was forced to outline the necessary procedures for manuscripts to be published in Burma. It was made clear that a manuscript first has to be scrutinized by junior PSRD officers before being submitted to the deputy director and then go to the division director for approval. Following this, the relevant division submits the material to the appropriate ministry for comments.
The final decision is made by the information minister. It’s easy to understand now why there are only five newspapers in Burma.
The bicameral parliament may be an institution that’s manipulated by the junta, but so far it has been providing us with junta-sanctioned reports about the deteriorating conditions inside the country which the pro-democracy movement could use to push for more democratic and substantial reforms.