‘Can’t They Spare Time for the People?’

By The Irrawaddy 10 September 2014

Among the most outspoken opposition lawmakers in Rangoon’s divisional parliament is Nyo Nyo Thin, who represents a constituency in Bahan Township. Nyo Nyo Thin, one of few women lawmakers in the assembly, has spoken out recently against a lack of transparency in the Rangoon city expansion plan and other government proposals. She caught up recently with The Irrawaddy to explain the challenges that she and fellow lawmakers face.

Question: Can you describe the role of the Rangoon divisional parliament? To what extent does it represent the voice of the people? 

Answer: The Rangoon divisional parliament has more than 100 lawmakers and is the second-largest assembly in the country. Rangoon is the most populous city in Burma but compared with assemblies in other parts of the country, the Rangoon assembly can’t hold sessions often. As a result, it can’t take care of people’s needs in real time. For example, there was flooding in Rangoon in June, but the assembly could be convened only at the end of August. And it could do nothing about the eviction of Thameegalay villagers. There are nearly 1,000 land-grab cases that the national-level farmland confiscation investigation commission has asked the Rangoon divisional government to settle, but the divisional government has settled only more than 100 cases. The divisional assembly should put pressure on the government or form a committee to handle the remaining issues, but the assembly hardly meets once in four or five months. To be frank, the divisional assembly can’t respond to the voices of the people in real time.

Q: Can the divisional assembly exert checks and balances on the divisional government?

A: In other countries, checks and balances mean the cabinet needs approval for every decision, so subnational assemblies are convened weekly or monthly. But here they can only be held once in four or five months. Checks and balances, therefore, are too weak here. Instead of pointing out the faults of government, lawmakers mostly make proposals to repair or build roads and bridges. …And the assembly basically can’t monitor the government on major issues like the budget. The assembly has approved for four years the budget as the government proposed it. Regarding budget control, the level of the divisional assembly’s checks and balances on the government is zero.

Q: Can the divisional assembly adopt laws that meet the requirements of the people?

A: Parliament needs to enact laws in accordance with the needs of the people. For example, Rangoon is experiencing skyrocketing rents. To address this, the divisional assembly needs to draft a law to control exorbitant rents immediately. Meanwhile, the so-called affordable housing options are still expensive for regular people. The assembly should enact a law to help people rent if they can’t afford to buy apartments. Unfortunately, the assembly still can’t promulgate laws on dwellings, which is a basic need of the people. Almost four years into its existence, the assembly can’t introduce laws that people need urgently. But, it can pass draft laws brought forward by the government. So far it hasn’t been able to turn down a bill submitted by the government. Even though there have been objections—from me and other opposition members—most of the time, the bills are approved as they were submitted by the divisional government. So, obviously, there’s not a balance of power.

Q: Rangoon is vulnerable to floods now, during monsoon season, and the divisional government has spent millions [of dollars] to address this. But the city is still experiencing floods. Is this due to management problems? 

A: Yes, that’s right. The Rangoon mayor replied to my question at an assembly session that flooding can only be prevented by spending large sums of money. But we simply think it’s a question of management. The divisional government spent more than 10 billion kyats [or US$10 million, to prevent flooding]. That amount has never been spent before, and it may be at least 16 or 17 billion kyats if the national government’s expenditure is added. That amount is for Rangoon city alone. So we should ask whether the government has done nothing, since flooding still hasn’t been addressed. Quite obviously, it is not a question of budget but a question of management.

Q: President Thein Sein has sped up the reforms, saying the country is in the third wave of reforms. Can the Rangoon government keep pace with the entire reform process?

A: The divisional government held a workshop focusing on the national government’s third-wave reforms and it seemed to conclude that the targets of the third-wave reforms proposed by the president have already been realized in Rangoon Division. Since then, I have found that the government is doing nothing. I’m quite sure the third-wave reforms initiated by the president have not reached Rangoon Division. The president has called for accountability. So, at the assembly I always ask who will take responsibility if such and such case happens again next time. Ideally, the concerned ministers would pledge to take action in accordance with the existing code of conduct for civil servants. … For example, if a place sees flooding, who will take care of it? District-level authorities, township authorities, the [Yangon] City Development Committee or the irrigation department? They need to make it clear who is responsible for what. But they [concerned ministers] did not give clear answers about accountability when such questions were asked during the previous session. So, the divisional government doesn’t understand accountability and responsibility, I reckon.

Q: What changes should be introduced to address the shortage of potable water and electricity as well as rising rent and land prices in Rangoon?

A: We need to introduce radical reforms. The reforms I mean here are not political, but rather management reforms, starting from the very lowest level of management. To do so, they [administrators] need to know what they are doing wrong and accept that they are making mistakes. …Whenever members of opposition forces or scholars point something out, cabinet members see them as enemies. If this continues, reforms can’t be realized. People are bearing the brunt of flooding and exorbitant rents. To handle it, responsibility and accountability must be set specifically. … In so doing, power must be relinquished to lower levels. Township authorities that take care of utility supplies on the ground have no authority at all. The authority is in the hands of central- and district-level or above authorities. Public needs have never been fulfilled because of centralization.

Q: Do you think that’s because the authorities don’t know the people’s wishes, since they were not elected by the people? Would you suggest the direct election of ward/village administrators and the mayor by the people?

A: That’s why the Constitution needs to be changed. The mayor should not be directly appointed by the president [as is the case currently]. …The provision that divisional and state assemblies can be held once a year must be annulled. Again, township, district, and divisional and state administrators must be elected by and for the people. Only then will they pay attention to the people’s voices. At present, because those administrators are appointed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, they look up to it [the ministry] rather than looking up to the people. They just fulfill the wishes of Naypyidaw.

Q: Is the Rangoon divisional government a capable governing body? Some critics say the ministers, including the chief minister, are frequently seen at opening ceremonies of car showrooms and companies rather than out meeting with the people. I often see Chief Minister Myint Swe at such events.

A: I’m quite disappointed with it. Rangoon government ministers often attend the opening ceremonies of companies, but when I propose that they meet with the people, they don’t seem to listen. The government even refuses to meet us, the people’s representatives, every month. We, lawmakers, can’t meet with government ministers except when the assembly is in session, and that’s only once in about five months. How good would it be for them to meet with community elders of each district in Rangoon division monthly? …In Irrawaddy Division, the divisional government, in cooperation with a civil society organization called Bridge, is meeting with the public directly. Why can’t the Rangoon divisional government do the same? Can’t they spare time for the people by attending fewer opening ceremonies?

Q: The Rangoon expansion plan has drawn criticism for poor transparency and the proposed developer is said to be connected to Myint Swe. How much do you know about this, as a divisional lawmaker?  

A: I only know officially what the assembly is told about the plan, but I also know many things unofficially. It is the responsibility of the concerned authorities to find out if these unofficial facts are groundless or not. To discuss the issue at the assembly as lawmakers, we need to have strong evidence, and I have been trying to get it. I also take tip-offs provided by the people into consideration.

Q: What kind of pressure do you face as a woman lawmaker?

A: Over the past three years, I have faced authoritarian objections and point-blank refusals to proposals I have made because I am a woman and also an opposition lawmaker. It was especially obvious during the seventh and eighth sessions of the assembly. Some ministers raised objections overstepping the bounds of their authority just because I am a woman. Some ministers tried to humiliate me. I have frequently thought about it and am sure they would not have done so if I were a male lawmaker.

Q: How do you overcome these challenges?

A: I will do what I need to do. I would rather let my life be taken away than allow my name to be ruined. But at the moment I need to forget that I am a woman while I am an opposition lawmaker.