In Burma’s Parliament, What’s on Your Head Matters

By Gabrielle Paluch 13 October 2014

NAYPYIDAW — The only question opposition lawmaker Win Htein asked Parliament last session was for permission to remove his silk turban, saying it was causing him headaches and hair loss. The 72-year-old, known for his irreverent sense of humor, admits he was just teasing. But the speaker shot him down just the same.

The civilians elected to Burma’s legislature are required to wear hats when taking the floor. The appointed military members are not.

Hats hold meaning here, embodying political allegiances, accomplishments and failures of a nation transitioning from a half-century of dictatorship to democracy.

The dress code in Parliament’s two chambers, based on old laws of the bygone king’s courts in Mandalay, reflects the major political camps and the legislature’s ethnic makeup.

Military members distinguish themselves from their civilian counterparts with a conspicuous absence of both headwear and elections. Men in uniform are appointed to a quarter of the 664 seats by armed forces chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

The Burman majority don a silk-wrapped, cane-frame turban known as a gaun baung, which has come to symbolize the nascent civilian government. Ethnic minorities wear everything from feathers and claws to tea towels on their heads. The most famous legislator, Aung San Suu Kyi, wears simple white flowers.

Like the hats, political allegiances in Parliament are as complicated as they are colorful.

Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition and Nobel Peace laureate, spent decades under house arrest. She now sits alongside her former captors, in turns scolding or praising the military. It concerns some members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, who quietly observe her tone shifting with her presidential prospects, which were never bright thanks to a law that was designed to keep her out of office.

Meanwhile, the military is even better represented than the 166 hatless heads would suggest.

Many of those wearing the gaun baung of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are retired men of uniform. But while the heavy influence of the armed forces has drawn cynicism, the party has not always voted in lockstep with the military.

The military, viewed abroad as being responsible for driving the country into decades of poverty, war, and dysfunction, sees itself as the glue that binds the country and, perhaps counterintuitively, the arbiters of peace in the world’s longest running civil war involving a number of armed ethnic groups. The posting to Naypyidaw’s Parliament is seen as unglamorous, as it’s not well-paid and offers no chances for promotion.

The most brightly colored headgear belongs to ethnic politicians from conflict-stricken states. Previously marginalized, they now find themselves with a little bargaining power and are seeking greater autonomy.

President Thein Sein, a retired general, has promised a ceasefire ahead of the 2015 election. Ethnic armed groups have proven tough negotiators despite clashes between them and government forces, which have continued throughout the stalling peace talks.

Win Htein typifies Parliament’s web of paradoxes. A close friend of Suu Kyi and a member of her party, he, too, was a soldier, under socialist dictator Gen. Ne Win.

Win Htein was erroneously accused of being an accomplice in an assassination plot against Ne Win and forced to retire in 1976. In 1988, when a student uprising shook the government before a military crackdown that left thousands dead, Win Htein joined Suu Kyi’s party and was soon imprisoned. His transition is not dissimilar to Thein Sein’s, from military uniform to gaun baung.

The jovial politician says he tries to avoid meetings with the top leadership, explaining that their relationship is complicated enough.

“I was senior to them when I was in the army,” he says with a mischievous smile, referring to the president and other major players in government. “They call me ako gyi [big brother] when we meet.”

If history had gone only slightly differently, Win Htein might himself be a powerful general. Or at least in Parliament, he would not have to wear his dreaded hat.