|Very quiet at Burmese Parliament!|
Among the priorities are the century-old law governing private enterprise, which needs urgent updating; a badly worded defamation clause in the Telecommunications Law that is all too often deployed by anyone holding a grudge; and the passage of a law penalising violence against women, to deal with a glaring omission in the criminal code.
One might expect the first freely elected Hluttaw, or parliament, in more than half a century to be working overtime on this daunting list. Instead it is becalmed. Just days before it was due to reconvene in May, U Tun Tun Hein, chairman of the committee that organises parliamentary work, was at a loss to say what would be done in the next session. “I cannot tell you which laws will be prioritised,” he admitted. Members of parliament did not even know how long they would sit in Naypyidaw—Myanmar’s eldritch capital city.
The previous parliament, led by the figleaf party of Myanmar’s long-standing military regime, was far more energetic than the current one dominated by the National League for Democracy (NLD), which swept elections held in 2015. The old house churned out on average more than twice as many laws per session, asked substantially more questions of the government and passed almost four times as many motions to the executive.
In part, the torpor is caused by a chronic lack of money and staff. MPs do not have any assistants to help them run their offices, let alone comb through hundreds of pages of legislation. Nor is parliament’s permanent bureaucracy able to provide the support they need. “My organisational chart says I am supposed to have 237 people working under me. I only have 41!” complains a harried Hluttaw official. Matters are not helped by the mercurial speakers in both houses, who can up-end the order of the day on a whim.
The previous parliament faced similar handicaps, yet managed to get more done. Renaud Egreteau, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think-tank in Singapore, thinks the NLD is deliberately slowing down parliamentary work because it wants its MPs to spend more time in their constituencies.
The previous legislature’s hyperactivity was driven mostly by the personal ambition of its speaker, Thura Shwe Mann. A presidential hopeful, he saw the highest office go to another former general, Thein Sein. So, having inherited a mostly ceremonial position, he vowed to turn parliament into an institution which the executive would have to answer to. He succeeded beyond expectations.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, does not seem to set much store by such institutional checks and balances. Few parliamentarians stand out—except perhaps the representative of the Naga people (pictured), who sports a traditional feathered hat but renounced his right to carry his ceremonial sword in the chamber. Not that there is much cut-and-thrust as NLD parliamentarians sit quietly through long, dull sessions.
Their silence is not the result of intimidation by the representatives of the armed forces, who occupy a quarter of the seats in the Hluttaw under the constitution drafted by the military regime. (The charter also bars people with foreign children or spouses, like Ms Suu Kyi, from the presidency, obliging her to install a placeman, and to run the country as “state counsellor” instead).
Rather, NLD lawmakers are muzzled by their own leaders. No NLD parliamentarian has ever voted against the party line. Members only ask questions that have been vetted by NLD bosses.
Despite the army’s guaranteed block, the NLD enjoys big majorities in both houses: 135 out of 224 seats in the upper house and 255 out of 440 in the lower one. Yet its MPs are told that awkward questions and dissent could hamper the country’s progress and give ammunition to the generals. That leaves little for the new lawmakers to do.
This highlights another problem: to stand up to Ms Suu Kyi, MPs must be better informed than “the Lady”. But most of them are at a disadvantage. “I don’t have the knowledge, I am not an expert,” admits one. As former soldiers, members of the previous parliament often had experience of running the country.
|Aung San Suu Kyi the latest Queen of Burma.|