Needed Tensions Are Rising in Myanmar’s Parliament

By The Irrawaddy 6 July 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week I’m joined by two elected lawmakers to discuss the increasing tensions in both houses of Parliament that began earlier this year—particularly, once the National League for Democracy (NLD) party began attempting to reform the Constitution. There have been acute political tensions—between the NLD and some ethnic parties on one side and the military, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and their allied parties on the other side. We’ll discuss how these tensions might be interpreted in light of the 2020 elections and what impact those tensions could have in terms of shaping the country’s politics beyond 2020. I’m joined by Lower House lawmaker Daw Aye Mya Mya Myo and Upper House lawmaker Ma Htoot May. I’m The Irrawaddy’s English editor, Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Looking at Parliament from the outside, we’ve seen a lot of political tensions in there. We have seen heated debates between NLD lawmakers and military-appointed lawmakers. This has raised a lot of questions for people. How fierce are those tensions, and are they disappointing to see? How do you feel about it, Ma Htoot May?

Htoot May: Personally, I think the fact that there are tensions in Parliament is a good thing. During democratization, parliamentary debates should be that way. If the Parliament is to serve the people, it is to review and amend all the laws intended for the people. I would say those tensions arose late. When we were elected, we told the people to some extent what we intended to do in Parliament—though we weren’t making promises. We said we would amend the provisions that do not represent the ethnic people and point out in particular the pros and cons of the 2008 Constitution, and amend or rewrite it. That it was submitted to the Parliament as an urgent proposal only after two years is already too late. That tension is already too late if we are to establish genuine democracy. So, in my view, there should be tensions in Parliament daily. Only then will people be able to clearly differentiate between those who really serve the people and those who don’t, between laws that serve versus laws that undermine the interests of people. So, I would say tensions in Parliament should have existed earlier, and I therefore welcome those tensions.

KZM: So, those tensions are necessary?

HM: Yes, they are.

KZM: Regarding the debate at the Parliament, both military-appointed lawmakers and the USDP have accused the NLD, as it makes up the majority in the Parliament, of democratic bullying.  What do you think and how do the majority of lawmakers feel about that claim?

Aye Ma Ma Myo: We have suffered from dictatorial bullying for decades. If democracy is to be practiced, it is inevitable that decisions are made by a majority vote according to democratic norms. Even if we call it bullying, democratic bullying is far much better for the people than dictatorial bullying.

KZM: So, you accept their claim of bullying?

AMMM: No, it is an accusation. If they really understand democracy, the decision made by those elected by the majority of the people must be accepted. They should not even feel it as bullying.

KZM: Our country is focusing on national reconciliation. The democratic forces, including the NLD and ethnic parties, are on one side and the military, their allies and the USDP are on the other side. Under such circumstances, high tensions could hamper or destroy national reconciliation and the ongoing democratic transition. The Parliament will resume on July 15. Do you think tensions will still exist or run even higher then?

AMMM: We have expected it [ongoing tensions]. Along the way, we have tolerated a lot for the sake of national reconciliation. We have promised the people that we would work to transfer power to them or ensure civilian control of the government, to deliver better services to the people and to promote democratic practices. But national reconciliation is not about tolerating everything.

KZM: It is not about concession.

AMMM: So, we have expected that there will be tension. As Ma Htoot May said, if we are establishing democracy, such debates are necessary.

KZM: Ma Htoot May, you said it is already late. People want constitutional amendments and they want to have a more democratic constitution. How realistic is this? To what extent can it be achieved in the next year or two?

HM: I don’t expect much. As far as I understand, the Tatmadaw is an obedient institution. They have to strictly follow the instructions of their leaders. They are obedient. As we are elected by the people, we have a legitimate mandate to raise issues of public concern. The leader of the ruling party—which won [the 2015] election—the leader of the Tatmadaw, and the leaders of ethnic armed groups are all key to amending the constitution. Unless all three can enter political dialogues as equals—no matter what provisions are changed in the constitution, no matter how intense tensions are in Parliament—we will not be able to make reforms.

KZM: But we have not yet seen a dialogue.

HM: Yes, there is no dialogue, which further increases tensions. According to my understanding, military-appointed lawmakers can do only what their leaders instruct them to do. We elected lawmakers can freely raise questions and cast ballots according to our beliefs and for the sake of the public interest. But military-appointed lawmakers may not have such freedoms. So, those tensions must be eased by the leaders outside of Parliament.

KZM: We will wait and see to what extent government leaders and Tatmadaw leaders can negotiate. Let’s talk about the functions of Parliament. It has been more than three years since the Parliament convened. Ma Aye Mya Mya Myo, how much do you think the Parliament has done for the people? What are its shortcomings?

AMMM: I am not satisfied with the level of respect other institutions, including the administration, have shown toward the Parliament. I have discussed this in my report in Parliament. I am not satisfied with ministers’ answers [to my questions] or their unfulfilled pledges. There might be a challenge of resistance from the old guard to changes as well as a lack of political will. Again, when I raise a question in Parliament, I do not do it on behalf of myself, but on behalf of my constituents and the people. Ministers should not view me as me. They should not treat my questions with disregard just because they are older than me or have higher status than me. They should see the institution [we represent] and not us. And they should also realize their promises.

KZM: The NLD dominates Parliament as it won a majority in the 2015 election. As an ethnic lawmaker, what differences do you see between yourself and NLD lawmakers? Some critics say that both the NLD party and its government are less friendly toward ethnic parties. And the NLD leadership has also said that they do not need a policy of alliance [with ethnic parties] because the NLD includes people of various ethnic groups. This is true to some extent. But there are also lawmakers from ethnic parties. How is this working in the NLD-dominated Parliament, and what is your response to the NLD’s claim [of not needing to ally with ethnic parties]?

HM: The NLD says it represents ethnic people because it won the election nationwide in 2015, but this is the wrong attitude to take—to ignore ethnic party allies, especially those it has partnered with since 1990, [just] because it won a majority in the 2015 election. Politics do not end with a single election. If the ruling party has absolute faith in federal democracy, allying with ethnic parties should be a priority.

KZM: What is the NLD’s stance on ethnic parties?

AMMM: It is obvious whenever committees are formed in Parliament. Lawmakers representing ethnic parties are always included in those committees. And ethnic people are also appointed ministers. So, I would like to point out that the NLD doesn’t ignore ethnic parties, but wants to work together with them.

KZM: Ma Htoot May, you are serving as the secretary of the Upper House’s International Relations Committee, and also as a member of the Joint Public Accounts Committee of the Union Parliament. What was your greatest achievement and what was your greatest failure over the past three years in Parliament?

HM: I’ve tried as much as I can to complete my duties at the Joint Public Accounts Committee of the Union Parliament. I can perform the tasks assigned to me by the committee in preparing reports. I am satisfied with my performance on the committee, but there were things that I was unhappy about. For example, as secretary of the Committee for International Relations, including ASEAN, I tell myself that I need to be dutiful to the position I am assigned; I submitted a proposal to ensure the youth gain four English-language skills so that they can keep abreast of the rest of the world, can meet the demands of the modern age and can be presentable in ASEAN labor markets. As far as I remember, I prepared two proposals at the same time for around 18 months. The other one was the ‘One Village, One Product’ proposal. Myanmar is poor and has no [value-added] products. No country without value-added services will be rich, so we need to teach people how to catch fish, instead of just giving them fish. The government must spend money to create jobs for people. Both of my proposals were rejected. No matter how much we try, if ministries have no will, the country will never be able to enjoy prosperity.

KZM: Ma Myo, what do you think the achievements and failures either of yourself or the entire Parliament are?

AMMM: Speaking of achievements, I am more than satisfied that public interest in the Parliament has increased. I am satisfied that people’s political awareness has increased. Of course, there is a need to further promote political awareness, but then I’m satisfied that there is this much at this nascent stage [of democratization]. I would call it an achievement. There are also things that I am not satisfied with. There are parliamentary committees and parliamentary staff. We lawmakers do not have personal staff or personal offices. Improving the capacity of parliamentary committee staff and providing them with technical assistance will contribute a lot to the functioning of Parliament. For example, it is difficult for people to contact parliamentary speakers. I am not happy with that. There is a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy involved in the process of submitting applications to meet with parliamentary speakers. If we are to act according to the parliamentary slogan, “the legislature represents the voices of the people,” the Parliament should take the initiative to meet with people. But in reality, the Parliament is not easily accessible to people—the bureaucracy slows this down. I hope that changes. To me, the answer to this is e-government. Measures have started being taken to turn the Parliament into an e-Parliament. I am grateful that measures are being taken now, but I’m not yet satisfied with them. For an e-Parliament to be successful, the staff implementing the new system will need a lot of assistance.

KZM: Ma Aye Ma Ma Myo, you are a member of the Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee. How much of Myanmar’s judicial system has become independent over the past three years? Because the judicial system was under the influence of the administration throughout the military regime before.

AMMM: It is impossible to fix the much-paralyzed system in a short period of time. So, I am not happy with it, to speak frankly. However, we were able to address some individual complaints filed to our committee. We committee members have reached a consensus on finding out how to address the root cause of the problem, rather than addressing individual problems. We are trying to address the root cause of the problem.

KZM: Does the Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee have some particular tasks to do when parliament resumes?

AMMM: We are preparing to enhance the capacity of committee staff so that they can better perform their tasks.

KZM: What can people expect from the Parliament before 2020? Will tensions remain or ease? Myanmar has been in the political storm for a long time, and even after 2015 the political storm remains. The international community has heavily criticized us. Will this situation continue, or can it get better before 2020?

AMMM: I am optimistic that the situation will get better. Debate is in the nature of democracy, and I think people will accept that.

KZM: Ma Htoot May, how large are the challenges you see?

HM: To me, challenges are increasing day by day, especially in Rakhine State. And about democratic bullying—if you have faith in democracy, there should be no bullying. Politicians, including lawmakers, should not use the term ‘democratic bullying.’ The democracy itself is about decision making by a majority. But this does not mean ignoring 49 people when you get votes from 51 others. There is a need to represent the wishes of those 49 people in some way. I don’t like the notion that the winning party seizes the initiative to gain advantage. Then people will misunderstand democracy. So, I don’t like that terminology. Again, there have been tensions in Rakhine State since the previous government. Many things have attracted criticism from the international community. Successive governments did little to address the problems there. At present, for example, internet service is shut down in nine townships including [Paletwa, in] Chin State. This is a violation of fundamental human rights. The current government, which won a majority [in 2015], shouldn’t do this. They said the internet is shut down due to security concerns. The assumption that an internet shut down will improve security is wrong—it’s just the opposite. The internet is needed for transparency. Why does [the government] only think about those they are warring with, and not the innocent people their wars affect? My aim is not about winning the 2020 election. I only want to be a politician who can serve the interests of the people. I think tensions may grow in my Rakhine State. We lawmakers need to point this out to the government to prevent tensions from growing. As a lawmaker in a country that is transitioning to democracy, I strongly object to the internet shutdown, which was done out of security concerns but without consideration for innocent civilians. This should not be done at all. Freedom of expression and the right to information are fundamental rights in a democracy. Therefore, the government, which has won the election nationwide, should take this into consideration. I hope Rakhine State will be able to overcome those challenges after 2020 and face the correct challenge of a federalism that can guarantee self-determination and equality. So I expect to see huge challenges, and I want those challenges to be all about promoting democracy. I want the challenge of the 2020 [election] to be who can show they have the biggest heart, either in Parliament or through dialogue.

KZM: Our democratic transition is a long journey, and it is fair to say that it has just started. What do you think is the main enemy [to a successful democratic transition]?

AMMM: To me, a mindset that is against democratic practices is the main enemy.

KZM: Ma Htoot May?

HM: There are no friends or foes in politics. Politics is about having strong political will and working for improvement for people day by day. So, there are no enemies in politics.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions.