Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Burma’s Biggest Win: Its Legislature

Burma’s legislature has been a boon for the country. But building a parliamentary house takes time

By Thomas Kean for

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.

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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.

“[When] we talk about the issue of the future of our democratic system, our transition period, we have no problem with each other,” he said. “We are friends now.”

He added, “I’ve been in prison for nearly eighteen and a half years with the political case but now we are in the parliament with them. [It is] very funny. I didn’t imagine I would be here in the parliament. … My life has changed, but I have no resentment towards them for that time. Now we want to [ensure] democratic stability, genuine democracy. We want to cooperate with the other parties, including military members, for the betterment of the people.”

Blurred Party Lines

One of the most striking features of Burma’s post-military rule parliament has been its lack of party allegiance. On countless occasions over the past two years, parties have split when voting on proposals and bills – even during the tightly controlled first session.

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Despite ostensibly coming from the same party, USDP legislators regularly ignore recommendations from government ministers, and even the president. In February 2012, President Thein Sein returned a parliament-approved draft of the Ward and Village-Tract Administration Law, and recommended that the selection process for local administrators be changed from being determined by secret ballot to “negotiated selection”. Representatives narrowly voted against the proposal, 278 to 236.

Splits have also occurred along more easily discernible lines, such as the vote in September 2012 on the proposal to impeach the Constitutional Tribunal. All Tatmadaw representatives voted against the proposal, while elected MPs gave it unanimous support.

However, in a subsequent vote in the lower house to amend the Constitutional Tribunal Law, two civilian parliamentarians – Dr. Sai Kyaw Ohn and U Ye Tun, both from the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party – opposed the bill with the Tatmadaw.

MPs attribute this development to a range of factors, including the composition of parliamentary committees. In each of Burma’s 15 parliamentary committees, there are 15 members. On average, about one-third of the members are from non-USDP parties.

The upshot of this committee composition is that representatives are forced to regularly mix with their counterparts from other parties in more intimate settings than the parliamentary chamber.

“Now there are so many committees and we are all cooperating. We are basically party-less in terms of how we think and operate,” Khine Maung Yi of the National Democratic Force told me at an upscale café in Yangon during a break between parliament sessions.

Ironically, one of the prime movers in this interparty cooperation has been Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house and formerly the third-ranking official in the military regime.

Overlooked for the presidency in favor of Thein Sein, Thura Shwe Mann has encouraged MPs to shed party allegiances and focus instead on the national interest. He speaks regularly of the need for “reciprocal checks and balances”.

Many question his motives, suggesting that the acting USDP chairman is angling for a run at the presidency in the 2015 election. Nonetheless, his leadership of the lower house has made Thura Shwe Mann deeply popular among MPs.

“The one I like most is the speaker, Thura Shwe Mann. He encourages us a lot,” Khine Maung Yi said to me.

Despite the progress they have made, Burma’s MPs still face a number of challenges in carrying out their legislative duties. Foremost among them is limited access to resources. For example, the parliament complex has only recently been given an internet connection.

Further, many of the legislators have little experience in administrative or legal matters. This leaves a relatively small number to do the bulk of the work. Their relative inexperience has created problems when resolving national crises, such as the ethnic conflicts that have broken out in the states of Kachin and Rakhine.

Clouds on the Horizon

Burma’s political progress during the past two years is nothing short of miraculous, but there is no guarantee that it will continue.

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As the 2015 election approaches, Thura Shwe Mann and other members of the USDP may decide to create more sharply drawn party lines. Given his powerful position as speaker of the lower house, this would not be particularly difficult for Thura Shwe Mann to do.

There is also a conflict brewing over the Constitutional Tribunal, which was impeached by the parliament in September 2012. The dispute stems from the tribunal’s March 2012 decision, which ruled that parliamentary committees, commissions and bodies do not possess the same status as government ministries. MPs argued that this limitation would limit their ability to act as a check on the government.

This ongoing saga took a new twist on January 14th, when the parliament approved amendments to the Constitutional Tribunal Law. These amendments muddy the waters about whether the tribunal’s decisions are final.

Despite warnings by President Thein Sein and Deputy Attorney General Tun Shin that the proposed changes would be unconstitutional, MPs held their ground and approved the amendments.

Observers, including the increasingly vibrant local media, have questioned whether the parliament dangerously undermined the judiciary by seeking to maintain its power vis-à-vis the government.

“At first, both [the government and parliament] tried to follow this book,” a Burmese journalist told me, holding up a copy of the 2008 constitution. “But now the parliament is using its majority to do things that are not in line with the constitution. Neither group has a tradition of compromise or negotiation. They just do things by force.”

In a November 2012 report titled Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon, the International Crisis Group noted that the impeachment of the Constitutional Tribunal “provided a clear demonstration of the enormous powers of the USDP-dominated legislature”.

The report continued, “With over half of the seats, the party has the ability to impeach any public official if it is able to secure the support of an additional ten per cent of representatives. … It is likely that the threat of impeachment could be used again to pressure the executive.”

But representatives are aware of the need to balance confrontation with compromise. During a discussion in November, instances of corruption were uncovered in fifteen ministries by the Office of the Auditor General. Following this discussion, Win Htein, a lower-house representative for the NLD from the city of Meiktila, offered a balanced solution.

Win Htein said that it would be best to resolve cases of misappropriation through a mixture of “some action and … some negotiation so that the funds lost will be reimbursed by the persons concerned”.

He continued, “It is important that it is not confrontational. Because we discuss it openly it will help transparency. I think it will improve later and they will manage [budgets] properly.”

Ultimately, this representative seems to speak for most MPs. As a whole, Burma’s young legislature remains acutely aware that the parliament is a work in progress, which it will continue to be into its second and third terms.

“I think of the experience of being a member of this first parliament as being like trying to lay the foundations to build a house,” said Tun Aung Kyaw of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party. “We can’t build a house immediately. First we make the foundations. And that’s what we are doing now.”

Thomas Kean is the editor of the English language edition of the Myanmar Times, a weekly newspaper based in Yangon