Burma’s parliamentary system explained

It has been disparagingly referred to as the “15-minute parliament”, but over the past few weeks the upper and lower houses in Naypyidaw (known as the Amyotha and Pyithu Hluttaw respectively) have been anything but.

From when the parliament began hearing questions and proposals from MPs on 9 March 2011 to when the first regular sessions concluded on 23 March, the lower house was in session for an average of almost four hours a day. In the upper house, which has fewer representatives, sessions averaged about three hours and 15 minutes each day.

No doubt these sessions were punctuated by long teashop breaks in the parliament canteen – reportedly one of just five rooms in the mammoth parliament complex that MPs are allow to enter – and much of the rest of the time has been spent listening to long-winded answers from government ministers. These have disclosed important facts such as the proportion of Chin nationals employed at the 15 Electrical Engineers’ Offices in Chin State (177 out of 197, or 89.85 percent, in case you were wondering) and the number of “local” teachers employed at Basic Education High Schools in Buthidaung township (50 out of 51, but the non-local is the wife of a “service personnel assigned to the region”, Minister for Education Dr Chan Nyein assures us).

However, this level of detail – and the discouraging presentation of the New Light of Myanmar, the only source for much of the goings on in parliament – has only served to obfuscate the fact that in the past two to three weeks we have seen a level of accountability, or at least disclosure, from the military that has probably not been present for several decades.

A broad range of topics have been discussed, with the overwhelming majority of questions and proposals submitted by the less than 20 percent of parliamentarians not from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) or military. In all, 46 questions and 17 proposals were submitted in the lower house, while 33 questions and 16 proposals were submitted in the upper house.

Another four days of questions and proposals were heard in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the combined upper and lower houses, before the new government was sworn in on 30 March.

Many of these have focused on regional infrastructure but ministers have also answered questions on a possible amnesty for prisoners, the introduction of compulsory military service, prevalence of tax evasion, lack of availability of loans for small-to-medium enterprises, manipulation of commodity prices, excessive cost of mobile phones, low internet connectivity, sale of fuel onto the black market, prevalence of gambling, conducting of a national census, cost of middle and high school education and the raising of pensions and government salaries.

Most observers will instantly recognise these as issues that are not normally discussed in domestic media. Accompanying many reports are a litany of facts that, as The Diplomat noted, “have been unexpectedly useful in determining the true situation in the country”.

“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,” Mong Palatino wrote.

And so it is that we have the Minister of Electric Power 2 U Khin Aung Myint (also the speaker of the upper house) admitting publicly that Chin State – with a population in excess of 500,000 – has a total electricity generation capacity of just 3 megawatts. In other words, enough for less than one in 10 people in Chin State to use a 60-watt light bulb at the same time.

However, the discussion in both mainstream and exile media about the parliamentary sessions has been minimal.

One report – “15 minutes of fame for Myanmar MPs” – even went so far as to insinuate that opposition politicians were only in parliament to raise their profile and collect the modest K300,000 (about US$330) a month salary.

“[M]any [opposition MPs] will pay lip service to the new era of democracy that has supposedly arrived in Myanmar – though more for international rather than domestic consumption,” wrote Aung Din from the US Campaign for Burma.

It is regrettable that the writer didn’t put as much time into fact checking as he did slandering opposition parliamentarians. “Since its opening, parliament meetings have not been allowed to last more than 15 minutes,” he writes, before castigating MPs for not calling for an amnesty – something they did on March 22. (The minister responded by saying it was the responsibility of the new government.)

The irony of all this is that Aung Din’s article – which also contains some valid criticisms – is almost as misleading as the government propaganda that he rails against.

Unfortunately, though, this has been par for the course. Most international media coverage of Myanmar has returned to the perennial issues of economic sanctions and the role of the National League for Democracy – almost as if the 2010 election never happened.

Partly this is because access to what is going on in Naypyidaw is extremely difficult. MPs face jail for revealing the contents of parliamentary discussions and no reporters are allowed into the parliament buildings. At the same time, the state media has of course only been presenting part of what’s going on in Naypyidaw. Much of the discussion has apparently been censored from media reports, and questions from MPs sometimes appear truncated. Two examples that immediately come to mind were questions about citizenship issues in northern Rakhine State that failed to mention the Rohingya ethnic group.

Many questions and proposals by MPs have not even made it to the parliaments. Questions and proposals have to be submitted to the speakers’ office 10 and 15 days in advance respectively for vetting. One article, which as far as I can tell has now been removed from the exile media website on which it was recently published, quoted an opposition parliamentarian as saying that many questions and proposals – particularly on the 2011-12 national budget – had been dismissed on the grounds that they were “not relevant to the current situation”. This probably means that the speaker does not consider them relevant to the SPDC because it will no longer be in power when the 2011-12 financial year begins on April 1.

One political analyst I know was very critical of opposition MPs for submitting questions before the new government had entered office and showing their hand too early.

“It just gives the SPDC a chance to talk about all the things they’ve been doing,” he said, “and shows the naivety of the new representatives.”

For this very reason the National Unity Party representatives have been biding their time. “We have many questions and motions ready to be discussed but we won’t submit them yet … we will hold them until the next session, after reviewing what happened in this session,” Pyithu Hluttaw MP U Mann Maung Maung Nyan told Yangon weekly The Myanmar Times last week.

Another observation is that the public have shown little interest in the parliamentary sessions, which have generated none of the political discussion that was seen during the election campaign. Opposition parties have largely faded into the background. It is disappointing that they have failed to gain any traction with the public since the election and continue to focus on the sanctions issue rather than building their political base.

“The senior general (Than Shwe) loves sanctions, because the discussion distracts from everything else that is going on,” one journalist told me last week. “But the opposition parties need to see past that and work harder at explaining to the public exactly who they are. Most ordinary people are still confused, because they only know the government and the NLD.”

“Poverty and a lack of hope have encouraged most people not to think about either politics or the country’s long term future. They see little value in the parliamentary system because any concrete benefits are still a long way from being realised.”

Nevertheless, some opposition politicians have privately expressed optimism and even satisfaction at the proceedings over the past couple of weeks. While members of the opposition acknowledge that they have very little power, some are confident that they have at least established a rapport with certain representatives in the USDP. That most senior military or ex-military personnel from “number three” Thura Shwe Mann down are forced to regularly rub shoulders with opposition MPs – who come from a very wide variety of fields – can only be a positive step. It is a prospect that was unthinkable under the SPDC prior to the convening of parliaments on January 31.

While Myanmar’s new bicameral parliament is unlikely to bring any rapid change, it is likely that the aims of the USDP and the military will diverge over time. Just as the interests of the former generals in parliament are different from the opposition MPs, they are unlikely to be the same as those who have remained behind in the military.

Senior General Than Shwe reportedly summoned “both outgoing and incoming ministers” on March 26 and “urged them to try their best not to split the party.”

“It’s interesting that he was worried about such split,” analyst Win Min told AFP.

This possibility was illustrated the previous day when Dr Myat Nyarna Soe from the National Democratic Force (NDF) submitted a proposal “urging the government to establish [a] department for migrant workers under an appropriate ministry”. When the representatives present voted on whether to discuss the proposal, it was approved 334 to 249, with 52 abstentations. As non-USDP candidates only have 105 seats, the USDP and military representatives appear to have split almost down the middle, ultimately siding with the NDF. While it mattered little – the Minister for Labour provided a relatively reasonable response and Dr Myat Nyarna Soe agreed “his proposal should be documented and it should not go on” – it indicates that the military is allowing more room for debate on decision making, which can only be a positive step.